Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dorothy Day, the Woman

Being myself both anti-abortion and anti-war, both a complementarian and an environmentalist, you might think that I would realize that others, like myself, do not fall neatly into the media constructed left-right continuum of social and political thought. Nevertheless, I still found myself going into The Long Loneliness with the assumption that Dorothy Day, hero of the radical left, must be a rabid feminist of the latest type. Of course, as a historian, I should have realized the anachronism of assuming that a woman who came of age just as so-called first wave feminists were making strides toward legal equality could not be expected to share the concerns of so-called second wave feminists who would begin to blur the distinctions between equality and uniformity in the 1960s. Especially since Day's book was published in 1952. (For all I know, she went on to mirror the changing landscape of feminist thought, but that is a topic for another study.) Whatever my misconceptions and miscalculations, I was pleasantly surprised to read Day's own reflections on her womanhood, not because they necessarily paralleled or reinforced my own thoughts on gender but simply because she represented a strong, thoughtful, articulate woman who was, nonetheless, still a woman and saw herself as distinct from--dare I say complementary to--man.

I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others. A child is not enough. A husband and children, no matter how busy one may be kept by them, are not enough. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are victims of the long loneliness. Men may go away and become desert Fathers, but there were no desert mothers. Even the anchoresses led rather sociable lives, with bookbinding and spiritual counseling, even if they did have to stay in one place.

That observation was inoffensive enough, but she would make others that might not sit quite so well as she pitted her own womanhood against the work she wanted to do:

I am quite ready to concede now that men are the single-minded, the pure of heart, in these movements. Women by their very nature are more materialistic, thinking of the home, the children, and of all things needful to them, especially love. And in their constant searching after it, they go against their own best interests. So, I say, I do not really know myself as I was then. I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I know that I was in favor of works of mercy as we know them, regarding the drives for food and clothing for strikers in the light of justice, and an aid in furthering the revolution. But I was bent on following journalist’s side of the work. I wanted the privileges of the woman and the work of the man, without following the work of the woman. I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others and so make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!

In that struggle, she did not always choose what the "woman" in her desired. Perhaps, as I think some feminists would argue, this was her overcoming the gender norms foisted upon her by a misogynistic society. Perhaps, as I would suggest, this is merely the sacrifice of self that makes Day's life so profound. Reflecting on her conversion, which precipitated her divorce, she wrote:

I saw the film Grapes of Wrath at this time and the picture of that valiant woman, the vigorous mother, the heart of the home, the loved one, appealed to me strongly. Yet men are terrified of momism and women in turn want a shoulder to lean on. That conflict was in me. A woman does not feel whole without a man. And for a woman who had known the joys of marriage, yes, it was hard. It was years before I awakened without that longing for a face pressed against my breast, an arm about my shoulder. The sense of loss was there. It was a price I had paid.

It was not all so dreadfully serious, and one anecdote caught my attention precisely for how typically human it was. It reminded of the kind of casual, unreflective assumptions about gender that you hear every day walking through the mall or rattled off in casual conversation around the office. Here she explains to a friend precisely how she sees a mutual acquaintance from her feminine perspective:

“I tell you, I do like him. I like him very much. But why do I have to go into raptures about him? Do you want me to fall in love with him? But that is just it—the only thing I do not like about him is that he always is raving about women—kissing his hand to them, going down on his knees to them and saying ‘Ah, how I love them, and how they have wrecked my life!’ Women don’t like such a man. He is too easy to get. They prefer a more aloof type so that if he does make love them they can flatter themselves that there is some rare quality in them which made him succumb.”

And yet, sixty years later, guys like that still exist. Go figure.

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