Day’s feminism avoids easy categorization. She was on the forefront of the effort for women’s suffrage during the early nineteenth century, even being jailed for her participation. As a young woman, she lived the life of a bohemian, seeking out adventure, intellectual and otherwise.
And yet, as her twenties dawned, she became increasingly conservative. At twenty-one, after being told by her boyfriend, Lionel, that she had to terminate her pregnancy or he would leave, she had an abortion. The procedure (sought out as Day was under enormous pressure to go through with it) was traumatic. The laws of the time limited her options to the back-alley, adding another shade of sordidness to the affair. Lionel left her anyway and she regretted the experience for the rest of her life.
Unmoored, she sought solace in the Catholic Church.She had her daughter, Tamar (born of another boyfriend), baptized before converting herself on December 28, 1927. She found an important anchor in the Church’s more socially conservative platform, a life free from “doubting, and hesitating, [no longer] undisciplined and amoral.” Despite this, Day was reticent to voice her opposition to abortion publicly; even in her private life, she demurred when asked her views on it. She was also hesitant to talk about birth control, saying, “we are not going into the subject…at all as a matter of fact.” Of course, it is impossible to draw any definitive conclusions from Day’s silences but they could suggest nuanced thought regarding control over a woman’s body. Even if this were not the case and, as others have suggested, her tight-lippedness was instead founded in her fear of hypocrisy and shame, it could suggest a sympathy for women not always associated with religious figures. (Indeed, one has only to look to Russia to discover a very different approach. In Остров [The Island], one of God’s “holy fools” slaps a woman for even considering an abortion.)
It would be a mistake to think that Day’s Catholicism brought her to heel. Though ardently committed to the sect, the Church hierarchy could be highly skeptical of her attempts to further involve women in its politics. In 1962, she staged a demonstration outside the Vatican flanked by tens of other women. These “Women for Peace” fasted for peace during one of the councils, bringing an important perspective to the Church’s deliberations. Within the Catholic Worker organization, she remained committed to promoting women’s voices. The organ’s paper, The Catholic Worker, featured and continues to feature radical Christian women’s voices, promoting policies to benefit women and children, especially those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.
Despite her radicalism though, Day thought a woman’s highest calling was motherhood, making her a controversial figure amongst feminists today. Despite living a life that was no means traditional, even after her conversion, Day encouraged other women to seek out domesticity. While her youth had seen her campaign for votes for women, she was rather uninterested in insisting on new roles for women in the Church. (After the preceding paragraph, this might seem a little strange. However, Day was the first to admit that she was not always consistent.) The debates over whether or not women should be allowed into the priesthood were largely uninteresting to her.