Today is International Women’s Day, which was founded by a peace activist.
To celebrate, we’re honoring Catholic-Pacifist Dorothy Day. She is largely remembered for her social activism with those of lower socio-economic status, but she was also a remarkable pacifist whose beliefs notably clashed with the Catholic Church when she took her controversial stance against World War II.
Dorothy Day was born in New York City in 1897. She attended the University of Illinois, but left in 1916 when she moved back to New York City. During her time as a journalist for several progressive newspapers, she became politically active. She was in numerous protests in favor of women’s suffrage, and was even arrested during a suffrage protest at the White House in 1917. Her support for women’s rights was not the only radical activism she supported, while writing for the socialist paper The Masses, she took a pacifist stance against the war. Though she was often criticized for her role integrating peace activism into her progressive journalism, as many felt that pacifism clashed with socialist ideals, she countered by saying that she “was a pacifist even in the class war.”
She had a difficult social life during this time, and after separating from her partner Forster Batterham in 1927, she converted to Catholicism, which would inform much of her pacifist stance. The first major step in bringing together her devout Catholicism with her progressive activism was when she, along with social activist Peter Maurin, created a newspaper entitled The Catholic Worker in 1933. While this newspaper was primarily concerned alleviating poverty and pushing for workers’ rights, Day was fully in charge on the paper’s content ensured that her pacifist message was maintained. This push for women’s rights, workers’ rights, peace activism, and Catholic ideals was referred to as The Catholic Worker Movement.
Shortly after the first issues of The Catholic Worker was published, Day announced that she would send delegates to the United States Congress Against War, representing themselves as Catholic Pacifists. On the eve of World War II, which had gained widespread support amongst Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Dorothy Day broke with traditional Catholic doctrine over the concept of “just war”. Per the Catholic Church, there are two sets of criteria justifying war: the first establishes “jus ad bellum,” or the right to go to war, while the second, “jus in bello,” established the right conduct while in war. Day and her fellow Catholic Pacifists believed that entering into World War II was not just on the basis of the destructive power of war technologies, particularly after the creation of nuclear weapons. Not only was this position controversial within the Catholic Church, but holding a pacifist stance resulted in the Catholic Worker’s circulation to drop by over 100,000.
Dorothy Day also found herself in hot water for her stance against the concept of civil defense. In 1955, she and a group of pacifists protested their scheduled civil defense drills. She felt that this was a philosophical protest, and argued that she was doing “public penance” on behalf of the United States for their creation of the atomic bomb. She would continue to protest and picket the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission over the next five years.
The idea of “just war” is no stranger to Americans, as we have entered into many controversial wars, including the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Many pacifists and conscientious objectors have employed Dorothy Day’s rhetoric without knowing its origins. Day was not only radical in her support of women’s rights and workers’ rights, but she combined those passions with her religious devotion to take a truly unique perspective against war that persists to this day.
This is the second blog in the Pioneers of Policy and Peace series for Women's History Month.