· Women of value ·
Dorothy Day was born in New York in 1897. She spent a large part of her early childhood and youth in Chicago. Here she studied for two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before returning to New York with her family in 1916.
In New York Dorothy found work as a reporter on The Call,the city’s only Socialist newspaper. She then worked for the periodical The Masses, which opposed the involvement of the United States in the war that was raging in Europe and which closed down in September 1917. In November that same year, Dorothy Day was jailed because she was among the 40 women who had demonstrated in front of the White House to protest against the exclusion of women from the right to vote.
In New York the young journalist led a very restless life as a Bohemian. She began a relationship with Lionel Moise, a journalist who was a womanizer, with whom she was besotted. She became pregnant and had an abortion. This was a painful experience which marked her for ever. She thought that she had become barren and that she could no longer ever have children. She had other relationships but could not forget that Don Juan who was to reappear in her life from time to time.
She subsequently found a more mature love in which she really lived a period of greater emotional and affective stability. This man was called Forster Batterham and he was a botanist. With him she contracted a stable civil union. They lived on Staten Island in a house overlooking the sea. With Forster Dorothy learned to love nature. And one day she had the welcome surprise of finding herself pregnant. In a process of inner rebirth and intense joy she gave birth to a daughter whom she called Tamar Theresa.
That birth was the culmination of her encounter with happiness, thanks to her relationship with Forster and, at the same time, a definitive call to see God as the centre of her life: “No human creature can receive or contain such a strong flood of love and joy as that which I felt frequently after my daughter’s birth; from it derived the need to praise and to worship”.
Her ideology, her militancy and all that she had learned and lived up to that moment gave rise in her to a great inner conflict between God’s call and the ruptures that it demanded of her. God’s call prevailed over everything else and Dorothy, her heart brimming over with immense gratitude, decided that the best decision was to baptize her daughter in the Catholic Church. “I didn’t want my daughter to struggle and to make mistakes in her life as I had done so often. I wanted to believe and I wanted my daughter to believe, and belonging to a Church could offer her a grace as priceless as faith in God, and the loving company of the saints; so the thing to do was to baptize her as a Catholic”.
Tamar Theresa was baptized before her mother. Dorothy waited until 28 December of the same year in which her daughter was born to have herself baptized, after a painful and definitive break with Forster, certainly due to the religious chasm which had opened between them and which became even deeper after Tamar Theresa’s birth. The price Dorothy had to pay for her decision to baptize her daughter and to embrace in turn the Catholic faith was exorbitant: the end of her union with a man she loved and the loss of several friends and companions.
Thus a new phase in the life of this extraordinary woman began. Her personality was bound up in the fact that she had a female body, inhabited by desires and accustomed to trembling with pleasure at the caresses of the man she loved: a body which had generated, given light to and nourished her so deeply loved daughter, who from that moment was to be the strength of her life; a body which, after the separation from her companion, had to come to terms with loneliness and with the burden of fighting as a laywoman and a single mother in a society that discriminated against women and in a Church which was still deeply marked by male chauvinism. From that time on all this sealed Dorothy’s destiny. But it would be this same body which was to be vibrant with compassion and solidarity for all the poor and unhappy men and women whom she would come across on her way and which was to make her experience as her own the sufferings of the world and of humanity.
After separating from Forster Dorothy met Peter Maurin, the great companion and associate in her spiritual life and her apostolic work. In him she found a Christian and a reformer with whom she experienced communion of mind and of feelings. In 1933 together they started the Catholic Worker Movement. Not only did this Movement publish an influential journal which in a short time reached a print run of more than 1,000 copies, but it also founded many shelters for the homeless, victims of the Great Depression which had hit the country after the collapse of the stock exchange in 1929. At that time in her life Dorothy Day took the definitive step of living like and with the poor.
Subjects such as justice and the transformation of social structures – considered by the Church of her youth as foreign to the search for individual salvation through spiritual growth, separate from responsibility for the organization of the world – had always dwelt within her and now were confirmed and gave meaning to her life. She saw clearly that it was not enough to fight against the effects of poverty. Poverty is an evil and must be eradicated. It was thus necessary to transform society at its roots. Similar reflections show that Dorothy Day, in the experience of her Catholic faith and of her mysticism, received inspiration and knowledge from God which set her well ahead of the most advanced reflections of the Catholics of her time.
Such reflections, which were multiplied in all her writings, present her as a pioneer of movements which only later were to emerge in the Church. The awareness of social sin and of the need for structural solutions rather than merely palliative and fragmentary solutions, for example, was to be very present in the liberation theology which exploded forcefully in the Latin American Church of the 1970s.
Dorothy Day was certainly a revolutionary, but coherent with what she called the “revolution of the heart”. She was certainly a mystic, but a mystic out of the ordinary. In the 1970s she was appreciated and praised by the leaders of the counterculture, such as Abbie Hoffman, who described her as the first hippy, a description which pleased her and of which she approved. She wrote passionately on the rights that women had in the 1910s but opposed the sexual revolution of the 1960s, having seen its devastating effects in the 1920s.
Dorothy Day succeeded in maintaining a progressive attitude in the defence of human, social and economic rights concurrently with a very orthodox and traditional sense of morality and of Catholic piety. However, her devotion and obedience to the Church were neither blind nor acritical. For example, she publicly condemned General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and this earned her the opposition of many North American Catholics, both religious and lay people. She was obliged to change the name of her journal, The Catholic Worker, because “the term ‘Catholic’ seemed to imply an official Church connection when this was not the case”. Her main struggles were on behalf of justice and peace. For them she lived and died. Her earthly pilgrimage ended on 29 December 1980 in Maryhouse, New York, where she died among the poor.
Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 24, 2020
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