Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980) — Journalist, Social Activist, Pacifist
By Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland School of Social Work
Dorothy Day’s early life gave little indication of what lay ahead. She was bright, bookish, worked hard, and aspired to be a writer. Religion did not play a large role in the family but she always found solace in churches, regardless of denomination. She had a strong desire to be independent and at age 16 won a scholarship to the University of Illinois. The high point in her life there was to be accepted into a writers club called “The Scribblers.”
At the end of her second year her father got a job in New York and she followed the family there. There is great poignancy in her statement that, “I could not bear to have them go so far without me. … I was not as free as I thought.” (p. 54). She worked for radical publications as a reporter and editorial assistant. This suited her need to write and coincided with her growing conviction that she wanted to work for social justice. During this period in her life she worked in a series of jobs in various locations and worked with or associated with people who were creating a revolution American in culture and politics. These included Max Eastman, Mike Gold, Floyd Dell, Malcolm Cowley, John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, Ben Hecht, Charles McArthur, and many others. She was active in both the peace movement and the movement for ((women’s suffrage)). These activities resulted in her first arrests. At the same time her search for a religious commitment grew.
Many have characterized this period of her life as being Bohemian. While she smoked a lot and drank some, she did not engage in sex at all. The majority of women in the first part of the twentieth century did not do some of these things or agitate for peace and woman’s suffrage her activities were not that unusual. In many ways she was the drudge who got the publications out while the editors were off doing other things. To label her a Bohemian is only an attempt to dramatize her later life and detracts from what she went through in her struggle to attain a sense of her own way.
She became increasingly convinced that her life would be devoted to helping the poor and went to nursing school. This too was not for her. She became infatuated with a reporter who said that nothing would come of their relationship. She got pregnant and had an abortion. She later decided this was a mistake because she wanted to be a mother. She took up with another man who was also not inclined toward marriage and became pregnant. This was a pivotal event because when her daughter Tamar was born she had her baptized as a Catholic and converted herself.
The conversion was not the result of an epiphany but for practical reasons. She wanted to know how to raise a child as a Catholic. It was a mixed blessing. Her love of God and what this stood for was growing but right from the beginning she objected to aspects of the church that did not equate with her sense of social justice. Her life took a momentous change when she met Peter Maurin. He became her teacher. It took her some time to accept him but she eventually concluded that he was a genius. He taught anyone who would listen and at any time and any place. His “personalist” philosophy was built around his commitment to Catholicism. The spiritual could not be separated from the spiritual if a community of spirit based on love was to be attained. The ideal society was to be pacifist and agrarian where all people worked and all people were equal. In many ways this resembled the organization of the Catholic Church during the first four hundred years of its existence.
Maurin lived his philosophy but did not have the ability to create structures that would extend it beyond himself. Dorothy Day did. These dreams enabled her to combine her interest in social causes with her growing commitment to the spiritual core of the Church. She was not a carbon copy of Maurin. For example she supported unions and Maurin did not believe in them. While she attributes what she did to Maurin it was she who started The Catholic Worker, it is said as an answer to The Daily Worker. There were several attempts to start farms but today only one survives. More successful were “Hospitality Houses” where all are accepted and the workers live in the same conditions as the guests. These too were not without problems. Around WWII they hit a low point because of her unpopular pacifism, the draft, and full employment.
They have grown since then and now there more than 185 such houses, including two in Maryland. They display a love of God and commitment to the idea that one needs charity before justice. Day avoided both political and ideological labels. All who came were accepted provided they worked and participated in the religion. Inevitably this attracted many dysfunctional people, including priests. Somehow a way was usually found to integrate them into the community. Occasionally things reached a point where someone had to be asked to leave. One striking example came during the sixties. Day was opposed to the Vietnam War but the protesters who stayed at her house also used drugs and engaged in sex in the house. She did not approve of the violence or property destruction that occurred in some of their protests. She was a true pacifist.
From the beginning heroic efforts were needed to get the funds necessary to keep the paper and the movement going. Day engaged in what seemed like non-stop fund raising, traveling, writing, and non-violent social action. While she had critics in the church she also attracted strong support from the liberal wing of the church and from philosophers such as Jacques Maritain. Michael Harrington was a resident of one of the houses.
While organized social work cannot emulate the Worker movement its values can be a major reference point for the profession. That help should be provided without means tests, doing with and not to, and eliminating as much bureaucracy as possible is a social work ideal. Her belief that government should be a last resort can help in the search for creative solutions to poverty. For example there is an organization called Heifer International which purchases animals for people in the developing world. It also teaches them how to care for them. All they ask is that some of the offspring be given to others and that they teach them how to care for them. David Stoesz advocates replacing welfare with what he calls “bootstrap capitalism” which emphasizes building individual and community assets and not subsidizing consumption (Stoesz, 2000). The personalist philosophy is a gift to the world that social work can embrace. Peter Maurin said, “A personalist is a go-giver, not a go-getter. He tries to give what he has, and does not try to get what the other fellow has. He tries to be good by doing good to the other fellow. … Through words and deeds he brings into existence a community, the common unity of a community.” Dorothy Day was a personalist but she never ducked the issues of peace and social justice. To paraphrase Maurin’s delicious epigram she “announced but did not denounce.” All social workers can learn from her example and her philosophy.
Miller, W. D. (1973). A harsh and dreadful love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic worker movement. New York: Liveright.
Miller, W. D. (1982). Dorothy Day: A biography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Stoesz, D. (2000). A poverty of imagination: Bootstrap capitalism, sequel to welfare reform. Madison. The University of Wisconsin Press.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2011). Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980) — Journalist, social activist, pacifist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/day-dorothy/