Dorothy Day & The Vote

Written by Brian Terrell
Originally published in the The Catholic Worker
Vol. LXXXIII, No. 5 August-September, 2016


“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 jailers in Occoquan Prison in Virginia after being arrested for picketing the White House,” so said the Long Island Woman Suffrage Association when they proclaimed her “Suffragist of the Month.”

Her arrest with suffragists outside the White House in 1917 and the brutal treatment she and others endured at the Occoquan Workhouse (it is reported that for her noncompliance Dorothy was lifted and banged down over an iron bench) was a turning pint in her own life as much at it was turning point in the struggle for women’s suffrage.  After a hunger strike of ten days, President Wilson personally ordered the women’s release and subsequently announced his support for the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, which was passed by Congress less than two ears later.

In recent years, the heroism and sacrifice of these courageous women have been featured in documentary films, books and countless articles.  Their memories are especially invoked during the run-ups to the presidential elections.  In one article from 2012, “Lucy Burns: A Look at a Catholic American Suffragette,” Michele Stopera Freyhauf says, “as we approach the election period infused with controversy… we must remember the sacrifices made by our foremothers during the suffrage movement, which gave women the right to vote.”  Freyhauf, who cites Dorothy Day’s contributions to the struggle, is quite emphatic: “it is imperative for all women to to make their voices heard this year by casting a vote.  To turn a blind eye to these issues diminishes the sacrifices our foremothers made for us.  TO not cast a vote takes away your voice, makes you a silent bystander…. I would like you, the reader, to remember their sacrifice and honor them by going to the polls and exercising your right to vote.”

If Dorothy Day can be described as “a committed suffragist,” then it might also be admitted that by the standards of some of those who would honor her memory by going to the polls, she was also a “silent bystander” who diminished her own sacrifices by never voting. “I went to jail in Washington, upholding the rights of political prisoners,” Dorothy wrote in her column in The Catholic Worker in June 1967.  “An anarchist then as I am now, I have never used the vote that the women won by their demonstrations before the White House during that period.”

How did an anarchist end up in jail with a bunch of suffragists?  In November, 1917, Dorothy Day was twenty years old and already an experienced journalist.  She was on the staff of the socialist journal The Masses when it was shut down by the US government and she had time on her hands.  Her friend Peggy Baird, just released from a thirty-day jail sentience for an earlier White House protest, invite her along to another.  “I don’t see why I shouldn’t go,” Dorothy responded.  “I hate not to be working and I don’t see what else there is I can do right now.”  For Dorothy and her fired itw as the right of people to protest and the rights of prisoners that motivated them, not a hunger for the vote.  “I wouldn’t use the vote if I had it,” Peggy said, “but that doesn’t keep me from joining them when they’re making such a good fight.”

Her experience at Occoquan gave Dorothy a sense of solidarity and identification with the poor and the prisoner that never left her.  “I lost all consciousness of any cause” she wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.  “I could only feel darkness and desolation all around me.  That I would be free again after thirty days meant nothing to me.  I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there are women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us are guilty….People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they received a high enough price, they were honored.  If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportions, if it were successful, they met with praise, not blame.”

The reluctance of Dorothy and of other anarchists to vote is sometimes misread a reluctance to be involved in civil affairs, but the real question asks, what is the best way to get involved?  For Dorthy, the answer was not found at the ballot box.  It is no contradiction that Dorothy and the newspaper she published supported the voting rights of Black Americans.  In her November 1956 column Dorothy wrote “even though the editors of The Catholic Worker do not believe in the vote, in elections as conducted today, we do agree that man wants a part to play, a voice to speak in this community, and this is usually exemplified by the vote.”  Dorothy held that everyone should have an equal right to speak, an equal part to play in her or his community and an equal right to vote or not to vote.

Some scholars insist that Dorothy really did not like to call herself an anarchist. In her 1991 book, The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective, June O’Connor claimed, “she preferred the words libertarian, decentralist and personalist to anarchist.”  More recently, in a March 9, 2015 article in The New Yorker, Eric Schlosser suggests that she demurred from calling herself an anarchist “not wanting to offend.”  Schlosser further states that Dorothy “preferred the term libertarian.”

“We ourselves have never hesitated to use the word [anarchism]” Dorthy wrote in her February, 1974 column in The Catholic Worker.  Even as she was appealing for funds to support her work of hospitality for the homeless, Dorthy embraced the discomfort around the word: “Even those dread words, pacifism and anarchism,” she insisted, “when you get down to it, mean that we try always to love rather than coerce, to be what we want the other fellow to be, to be the least, to have no authority over others.”

In July 1977, far from fearing to use the offensive word, Dorothy said of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two radical murdered by sate execution fifty years before, that she wished to “write about these two anarchists, because that is the word, or label, which confuses many of our readers (especially the bishops) and ‘clarification of thought’ is the first plank in the Catholic Worker program.”  Dorothy further explained, “to us at the Catholic Worker, anarchism means ‘Love God and do as you will.”

Dorothy’s positions on anarchism and voting never softened.  The last word we have from her is a diary entry dated August 25, 1980, three months before her death. “‘All Creatures Great and Small’ on TV, followed by a woman’s rights program (the anniversary of woman’s suffrage) about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I went to jail in Washington, DC for women’s suffrage in the fall of 1917, but I have never voted.”

“I have never voted.” Dorothy repeated these words like them several times in her last years.  One friend who knew Dorothy better than I did say that he senses in these words a tone of regret, of missed opportunities.  I hear something else altogether and believe that Dorothy was expressing satisfaction for a life well lived, for faithfulness to holding to an ideal against years of adversity.  It cannot have been easy for her, as it is not easy now.  I know from experience that a principled refusal to vote is easily misunderstood and the even the best of friends on a political bandwagon can be callous and sometimes incredibly cruel to those who will not jump on.

Dorothy’s anarchism has never been more relevant and vital than it is in 2016.  Dorothy’s life assures us that hope is not a cynical electioneering slogan but areal human possibility.  It is significant that of the four people that Pope Francis commended in his address before the US Congress last September, one, Dorothy Day, was a woman who by deliberate choice never voted and yet had engaged with the issues of her time and had an enormous impact on her world.  She did not turn a blind eye and refusing to vote did not take away her voice.

Along with her friend and comrade in the Catholic Worker, Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy “did not bother to choose between the rival warmongers who sought to run the country,” but “voted every day, practicing (her) ideals against war and the capitalist system which caused war.  (Diary of a Catholic Anarchist, Ammon Hennacy, 1957).

Dorothy was not bound to choose between greater and lesser evils and neither are we.  The pollsters are wrong.  Our choice is not between being a silent bystander or a collaborator with one degree of evil or another.  Dorothy’s anarchism is the antidote to the paralysis of those who reach the conclusion that electoral politics is a meaningless charade, encouragement to those tempted to abandon hope when they discover that their hope in the system was misplaced all along.

Dorothy Day considered the ballot and decided that it was not for her Fasting and prayer along with sharing resources in community, breaking bread with the hungry and welcoming the stranger, tending gardens and engaging in daring acts of nonviolent protest — these activities constitute a practical political program that she could embrace.  It is a program that, unlike the paltry and soon to be betrayed promises of the corporate political parties, holds infinite potential to bring peace and healing to this tortured planet.


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