Today is the birthday of American activist Dorothy Day (1897) (books by this author). Day spent her life fighting for women’s rights, civil rights, and the poor. She was a lively and curious young woman when she landed in Greenwich Village after two years of college in Illinois. She quickly became part of the bohemian lifestyle, making friends with playwright Eugene O’Neill and writer John Reed, and working as a journalist for several socialist and progressive publications. She even interviewed Leon Trotsky. The New Yorker once referred to Dorothy Day as, “perhaps the most famous radical in the history of the American Catholic Church.”
Her days in the Village inspired her autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924). She said: “I was only eighteen, so I wavered between my allegiance to Socialism, Syndicalism (the I.W.W.’s), and Anarchism. When I read Tolstoy I was an Anarchist. My allegiance to The Call kept me a Socialist, although a left-wing one, and my Americanism inclined me to the I.W.W. movement.” In the epilogue to the novel, she wrote, “I thought I was a free and emancipated young woman and found out I wasn’t at all […] Freedom is just a modernity gown, a new trapping that we women affect to capture the man we want.” When the movie rights were sold for $2,500, she bought a beach house and began writing in earnest.
She also converted to Catholicism and, along with Peter Maurin, a French Catholic social activist, began a publication called The Catholic Worker, devoted to issues of poverty, social justice, and civil rights. The first issue was edited in the kitchen of a tenement on Fifteenth Street, and the writers received no salaries. Printing was made possible by donations by regular people, like priests and shift workers, and even a homeless woman who donated a dollar. The paper debuted in 1933 and cost one penny. It still does.
In the first issue, Dorothy Day declared that the paper was, “For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight. For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain. For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.” The paper led to the creation of “houses of hospitality” in New York City and across the U.S., where homeless people, especially women, could seek shelter and assistance.
Day became something of a counter-culture icon during the 1960s, with radical Abbie Hoffman calling her “the original hippie.” She was an ardent anti-war activist and was often arrested during protests. Her last jail stay was when she was 76 years old. She served 10 days for walking a picket line with Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and civil rights activist.
Dorothy Day died in one of the very same hospitality houses she helped create. An employee said she died of “a long and hard life.”
About her life’s work serving the poor, Dorothy Day once said: “What we would like to do is change the world — make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute — the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words — we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”
And she said, “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the Psalms.”