Dorothy Day: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
BY SAMANTHA YANITY | May 21, 2016
In a scholarly article about Puritan funeral services, American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Her research approach documented what she referred to as the “silent work of ordinary people.” Ulrich’s observations caught on like wildfire to describe courageous women who sought, without the hope of praise or admiration, to stand up against injustice and promote social justice. If there were ever a woman who exemplified the words of Ulrich, it was Dorothy Day. She was the silent force that boldly pushed the boundaries of patriarchy to promote justice and peace.
Day was not a “well-behaved” woman. In fact, her boldness even landed her in jail. Many equate obedience with goodness, but as we have learned from the daring acts of human rights activists, doing what is right and following the law do not always work together. After all, what was the defense of the Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials? They proclaimed that they were “only following orders.”
Dorothy Day: A Servant of God
Titled “Servant of God” by the Vatican, Day exhibited the true image of what it means to follow Christ no matter the cost. Her love for the poor and marginalized brought forth the Catholic Worker movement. Her deep love of Christ shaped her life work as a social activist, anti-violent protester, and pacifist, and it is this Christ-like altruism that challenged racism, sexism, capitalism, war, and violence.
When I got wind of the news that Day might be up for canonization, I was ecstatic. As a feminist woman, I am constantly on the lookout for saintly, yet bold female role models of justice and peace. She spoke and acted with equal dosages of strength and humility. She boldly fought injustice with silence and righteousness. For me, Day represents everything I should be as both a woman and a disciple of Christ.
A “Modern” Day Saint
The prospect of Day as a modern-day saint would give young Catholic women many things to chew on. In a world focused on telling young girls to look pretty in Photoshop selfies or that their self-worth is measured by internet followers, it is important for young women to have a role model who is hard-working, smart, and selfless. Day is a fantastic role model because she was marked by the virtues of Christ—justice, mercy, compassion, and love.
When I think of what kind of woman I want to be, Dorothy Day comes to mind. In deed and word, she illustrated that Catholic leadership is not limited to men, but open for all. Canonizing Day would also show women and men that sainthood is an attainable feat for all, not reserved for some. Through her conversion story, Day represents all of us as sinners in need of grace. However, Day never lived in regret. Rather, she let her conversion and faith in God shape both her heart and life. Day was an ordinary individual who saw the plight of humanity and acted. What is compelling about Day is her conviction. Day served others with conviction and continued to push for equality and human rights her entire life. What Day shows all of us is that we as women and men, laity, and clergy, are all called to sainthood.
Samantha is currently earning an M.Div and M.A. in social justice at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute for Pastoral Ministry.
Day confounds us, because though she was committed to social justice, her primary teaching was one of self-transformation and personal responsibility. She cared little for institutional change, laws, governments or for that matter movements. It was the human heart that she sought to move and mold. Her life was austere and her example, one of individual abnegation. She sought to transform the Church from its hierarchical character to a more anarchistic expression of christianity, without directly confronting the clerical institution. She led by her example, more than by her words.