When one mentions Dorothy Day, one thinks automatically of the Catholic Worker Movement, the religious organization that she founded to help alleviate poverty and injustice. But few people know that Dorothy Day was also a committed suffragist who endured torture and mistreatment at the hands of the jailors in Occoquan Prison in Virginia after being arrested for picketing the White House. Hers was a life-long quest for justice and equality that took her from the rubble of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 to the slums of Calcutta, Rome and New York.
Dorothy Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, third in a family of five children. Her father was a sportswriter, her mother a homemaker. When Dorothy was six years old her father moved the family to San Francisco where he had been offered a job, but their time there was short-lived. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed the paper where he worked, and he then moved the family to Chicago, and later back to New York.
Dorothy attended the University of Illinois, and it was there that she began to be concerned about the gap between rich and poor. She left the University and took a job writing for The Call, a Socialist newspaper where she published articles describing the plight of the destitute in the New York City’s tenements and slums.
It was during a visit to Washington DC in 1917 that she was inspired to join the White House pickets. When she protested the treatment of imprisoned suffragists she was arrested herself, and sentenced to thirty days in the dreaded Occoquan prison. In her book Jailed for Freedom, Doris Stevens recounts:
“I saw Dorothy Day brought in. She is a frail girl. The two men handling her were twisting her arms above her head. Then suddenly they lifted her up and banged her down over the arm of an iron bench – twice.”
After suffrage was achieved, Dorothy became a Catholic and went on to devote her life to fighting injustice and providing help for the poor and downtrodden. She and her colleague Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement, published the Catholic Worker newspaper, and established farms and homes where the poor could find housing and work. Her work was not without controversy; she was later accused of being a Communist and frequently protested the government testing of atomic weapons and the Vietnam War. But she lived the tenets of her faith, even when they were unpopular, and eventually became revered; there has even been talk of canonization by the Catholic Church, a concept she scorned. “Don’t call me a saint,” she once said, “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Learn more about this remarkable crusader for freedom and equality. in my book, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women, Chapter 12.