How the Great Dorothy Day’s Anger Was an Expression of Her Faith

Kaya Oakes on the Life and Times of the Legendary Activist

Dorothy Day was many things: a journalist for socialist and communist newspapers, a single mother, an adult convert to Catholicism, and the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, a leaderless movement of volunteers living in radical solidarity with and in service to the poor and marginalized. She was a lifelong activist, tirelessly present at every protest, walking every picket line, repeatedly being arrested, spending long stints in prison, and participating in hunger strikes. She was deeply religious and saw her vocation as a call to solidarity with the outcast, without ever taking religious vows. She was also very, very angry.

She made other people angry, too. Most people saw housing the homeless as transitional, or as a form of rehab. But Catholic Worker houses are not rehab houses. They are homes. “We let them stay forever,” Day once told a social worker. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family.” She was no fan of capitalism or war, which made her a target for politicians, who distrusted her socialist background. And those who knew her intimately admitted she could be very difficult to live with: strict, demanding, impatient, and emotionally distant.

Scholars of Day have written that she “struggled” with her anger, that it was something she frequently needed to rein in. Catholic Worker Jim Forest, who knew Day in the last decades of her life, writes that her anger was something those around her experienced on a regular basis. When someone complained about her bad temper, she said, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” When a college student asked Day about her soup recipe, she replied, “You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed.” She was angry at America, too, for its systemic failures to serve the poor and function with any kind of meaningful social equity. According to Day, “Our problems [as Americans] stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

But she was also, by all accounts, a saint. She gave until there was nothing left, worked harder than anyone else, and was politically radical at the same time she was religiously conservative. Her days began and ended with prayer. She was someone who not only had religious convictions but actually lived them out, often at the expense of her personal life. She abandoned her common-law husband when she converted and he chose not to join her, but she also continued to write longing letters to him after they parted ways. She had deep wells of love for humanity that very few other people can approach, but she also knew that human beings can be frustratingly selfish and shortsighted.

She was a woman, and she was angry. All the time. Angry at injustice, angry at politicians, angry at people around her, angry at herself. Dorothy Day’s anger might be dismissed as the same kind of “righteous anger” that has fueled prophets and leaders forever, but because she was part of a religious tradition where patriarchal thinking is so deeply entrenched as to be built into its foundations, her anger is often swept over in favor of focusing on her holiness. This not only does a disservice to Day, who famously said she didn’t want to be called a saint because she didn’t want to be “dismissed so easily,” but it also does a disservice to women’s anger, so threatening to men’s grip on the status quo that they have spent millennia trying to tamp it down for fear of what might happen were it to be fully unleashed.

The dichotomy and problem of women’s anger is that it is both universal and largely perceived as aberrant by patriarchal culture, and therefore something to be suppressed. Since Saint Paul—or whoever put his name to these texts—wrote them down, these words about women have had unfortunate consequences:

Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. (1 Corinthians 14:34)

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1 Timothy 2:12)

These are just two examples of the kinds of silencing and erasure of women that formed the backbone of Christian patriarchy, but these ideas of submission and silence are still rolled out with some regularity today, not only by religious conservatives but by mansplainers, reply guys, and every other person who thinks they have more knowledge and more experience than a woman possibly could. When you’re on the receiving end of it, there are a few common responses to this kind of thinking: corrosive self-doubt, lacerating irony, and incandescent rage.

She was a woman, and she was angry. All the time. Angry at injustice, angry at politicians, angry at people around her, angry at herself.

Patriarchal culture that critiques women as being too emotional has somehow managed to erase the idea that anger is an emotion, because anger has become the domain of men. Rebecca Traister says that Americans in particular “are regularly fed and we regularly ingest cultural messages that suggest that women’s rage is irrational, dangerous, or laughable.” During the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in 2018, the man at the center indulged in red-faced rage and shouting, and this was passed off as an appropriate response, an example of his “passionate” nature, his fervor for the law. When Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual assault, spoke calmly and clearly, using her expertise as a psychologist to support her points about trauma and memory, subsuming her anger and shame to professionalism and confidence in the truth of her narrative, she was attacked for not being “likable.” Dr. Ford was not allowed the luxury of releasing her emotions on the public stage, even while she spoke about her own sexual trauma. However, holding back turned some people against her. This push and pull puts her and every other woman in an impossible bind. She got death threats and had to go into hiding. He got to sit on the Supreme Court. Surely she was angry about it.

The danger of an angry woman is the danger of instability, volatility. But a woman who holds in her emotions somehow manages to fail as well.

In Greek mythology, the maenads were acolytes of the god Dionysus, whom we now associate with booze and parties. But the word maenad translates to “raving one,” and these women were both angry and dangerous, an archetype and warning signal to men of what uncontrolled female rage can become. The maenads could not be wounded in battle, and they suckled wolves instead of human children. Snakes drank their sweat, and they could uproot trees with their bare hands. They traveled into the mountains at night and participated in violent rituals, sometimes involving tearing a bull to pieces with their bare hands and eating its raw flesh, ritualistically taking in the body and blood of Dionysus, a twist on Christian communion with very different implications: instead of imbibing peace, they imbibed fury.

There is a maenad inside every woman, still, today.

*

Every woman keeps a memory store of slights, abuse, enforced subjugations within her: the times she was undervalued, undermined, overlooked, and passed aside. How were women taught to handle the fire inside? In my Catholic-school girlhood, the model given for every woman was the white marble statue of Mary parked in a corner of the playground. This Mary was passive, an empty vessel created to hold God. We were given female saints who resembled Precious Moments figurines more than real people, saints praised for obedience and docility, unlike their male counterparts, who bravely spoke up and fought and shed blood for the Lord.

This was not the 1950s. This was the 1970s and 1980s in Oakland, California, a city defined by its radical activist history. While we were being taught that women saints never got angry, Angela Davis and Elaine Brown were carving out leadership positions in the Black Panther Party just a couple of miles away, clearly and appropriately venting their anger. While we were introduced to a Mary defined by submissiveness, who never spoke up, the ERA was being pushed along by women angrily shaking off their predetermined destinies. When we learned that women are not allowed to be leaders in our church, Shirley Chisholm was running for president, channeling her experiences of racism and misogyny into eloquent critiques of American oppression. While Pope John Paul II was writing that submission to men is how women experience love, we were watching the movie 9 to 5, in which Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda’s characters tie up and vanquish the horrible boss Fonda’s character refers to as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”

What the Catholic church wanted us to understand about women and anger—that we simply didn’t experience it—backfired spectacularly. Gen Xers became, according to Pew Research, the least religious American generation up to that point, to be followed by the increasingly less religious generations of millennials and zoomers, each generation angrier than the next. The tipping point was, of course, the election of Donald Trump, when hundreds of thousands of furious women poured into the streets around the world—maenads unleashed.

But patriarchy’s last throttling grasp is strong. Women might be able to march, but we’re also expected to placate and soothe—not ourselves, but others, and men in particular. And we’re also told to be quiet, keep secrets, not tell anyone when we experience harassment or violence. And if we do speak, we are dismissed as “hysterical,” exaggerators, liars, told whatever happened was “not that bad” or “not a big deal” or something to be moved past or pushed aside.

How are we not supposed to get angry about that?

In America, women’s anger is not only sidelined but racialized and class stratified, with damaging, long-festering stereotypes of “angry” Black women and “fiery” Latina/x women portrayed in opposition to “submissive” Asian American women. For Black women, this patriarchal culture is exemplified by the “Sapphire” caricature, who has “venom for anyone who insults and disrespects her.” This racist caricature morphed into the “Sassy Mammy,” brought to a wide audience through the Amos and Andy radio show—a loud, overbearing vision of Black women that remains persistent as a stereotype today. Likewise, the notion that Latina/x women are hotheaded and liable to pop off has been reinforced in popular culture for decades. The short stories and novels of the Dominican American writer Junot Díaz are full of these kinds of feisty female caricatures, and television shows and films are still regularly populated with these emotionally unpredictable stereotypes of Latina/x women as well.

Asian women, on the other hand, are victims of the “docility myth,” exhibited in fetishizations of Asian women portrayed by white media in “an almost entirely sexual light,” according to Robin Zheng. Portrayals of angry white women are more recently mostly focused on “Karens,” entitled types who vent their racism and rage by calling in managers and cops to police what they believe is other people’s problematic behavior. These white women use their anger to ward off perceived danger, which is often greatly exaggerated, if not entirely invented. This may explain why 53  percent of them voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Each of these stereotypes does the same thing: it reduces women’s humanity and mutes the lived truths of their lives. It pushes anger down into a place where it festers and feeds on our bodies and minds.

In a country built on a mythical meritocracy that supposedly levels the playing field, women of color and women in poverty are doubly disadvantaged. They’re disadvantaged because of their gender, and also because of their lack of social cachet. They’re also often stereotyped as angry, when in fact, they are often carrying centuries of inherited trauma. Trauma, scientists have discovered, can actually alter a person’s DNA. And one of the predominant ways trauma gets expressed is through anger. So women are not just carrying anger from this lifetime. It’s actually built into our bones.

*

In 1906, the tectonic plates below the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco tilted, slipped, and ground into one another, destroying most of what was then a city of four hundred thousand people more than half of whom instantly became homeless as the city’s wood buildings burned and the mortar in its brick buildings liquefied, turning a city built on dreams of gold into a pile of smoldering rubble. Three thousand or more people died, and those who survived streamed into Oakland and Berkeley across the Bay, moving into makeshift shelters and encampments, scattering across beaches and parks throughout the Bay Area.

In 1906, Dorothy Day was a girl of nine, living in Oakland with her family, who led an itinerant existence as they followed her father’s career as a horse-racing reporter. They only lived in Oakland for a few years, and their timing was, arguably, terrible. The quake put a stop to horse racing and ended her father’s career at the newspaper, but it also sent floods of refugees from San Francisco into the city where she lived. She had nightmares about the quake for the rest of her life, imagining “a great noise that became louder and louder and approached nearer and nearer to me until I woke up sweating with fear and shrieking for my mother.”

Women are not just carrying anger from this lifetime. It’s actually built into our bones.

In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Day wrote that the quake began, as they so often do, late at night with an audible rumble, and that “the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea that rocked our house.” Her family home was “cracked from the roof to the ground,” with objects knocked over, but Oakland did not buckle as badly as San Francisco. In a self-revealing moment that she drops into the text before swiftly turning the focus to others, Day notes that her father and mother snatched her brothers and sister from their beds to stand protected in the doorway, but left Dorothy behind, where she lay terrified “in a big brass bed that rolled back and forth on a polished floor.”

Scholars of Day and many others who view her with a kind of reverence that she, in her deep-seated pragmatism, would probably have disliked have written about the quake and its aftermath as the incident that began her slow transformation into a life given over to service. Her mother and neighbors rushed into helping the refugees in Oakland, cooking, cleaning, giving away “every stitch of available clothes”—an occasion she would remark on as showing her the potential for human generosity.

But as a fourth-generation Californian who has lived through many earthquakes, from tiny night shakers to the massive Loma Prieta quake in 1989 that took down the Bay Bridge and flattened a section of freeway not far from my own family’s home, I think about nine-year-old Dorothy left behind in her bed in Oakland, rolling back and forth across the room. I consider the nightmares she’d have about the quake for the rest of her life, and I understand she was very likely suffering from internalized trauma. And trauma can make women very angry.

In 2008, a group of scientists discovered that children who had survived the Dutch Hunger Winter were more likely to have more health problems than their siblings who escaped it. As mentioned earlier, trauma can in fact alter your DNA, meaning that trauma can also be passed along to succeeding generations. Much of the research on epigenetics since then has focused on World War  II and the Holocaust, and there is growing research into links between the history of slavery and inherited physical and mental health issues in Black Americans.

Of course, we have long been aware that trauma alters people psychologically, something women were reminded of again during the #MeToo movement when woman after woman talked about the mental and physical damages of abuse. But the idea that our DNA itself can be permanently changed by trauma is something those who have survived violence or abuse can understand intimately. We don’t know if Dorothy Day’s anger as an adult was a direct result of her childhood experience in the earthquake or of being left behind while it ravaged her home. We do know that she could be cantankerous, short-tempered, difficult, and emotionally distant. For people like her who have survived catastrophes, the vulnerability of childhood combined with early trauma can take the form of anger in adulthood.

When I was a college student, a friend gave me a copy of an anthology by the local avant-garde book publisher RE:SEARCH. It was called Angry Women and had a cover depiction of a rigid-faced Medusa. The book contained a variety of essays by performance artists, experimental musicians, and writers, all talking about the ways in which they channeled trauma and their ensuing anger about it into art, lived with anger, cultivated it, and made it part of their creative process. But in my early twenties, I was already learning that anger was a luxury. I had an angry father, and anger made him drink, and drinking killed him, so anger had to be carefully meted out in small doses, like a homeopathic remedy. If you channeled your anger into social-injustice causes, it felt more permissible; in the early 1990s, AIDS was already killing some of my friends, and it was fine to lace up my boots and march with ACT UP and shout about the Persian Gulf War and go to shows by the local all-women band Tribe 8 and scream and jump up and down with hundreds of other angry women.

What if women’s anger is something we still need to learn to listen to, and to actually hear?

But at work, in class, with boyfriends, and walking down the street, it was not okay to get angry. Guys I dated thought their job was to get angry on my behalf. Whenever I’d get close enough to a guy to tell him about a sexual assault I’d experienced, he’d say he wanted to punch, choke, or kill the man who did it, and I was supposed to appreciate this, to consider it an honorific—allowing him the anger that wasn’t allowed me.

I worked in retail to pay my way through college and grad school, and while it was probably within the customer’s rights to get angry at me when I made a small mistake, the reaction to these mistakes was often disproportionate to the scale of my error.

When men would tell me to smile, would “Well, actually…” me in class when my points were in fact correct, would grab my breasts and ass on public transit, would follow me home, or on one occasion, grab my wrists and twist them so hard, one was sprained because he “just wanted to talk,” getting angry was both my appropriate response and a huge mistake: it only amplified and intensified men’s anger, like upending a vat of gasoline onto an already raging fire. Better to soothe and mollify than to risk making things worse.

Where does it go, all of that women’s anger? In the catechism of the Catholic church, we are told that when anger turns to wrath, it becomes a mortal sin, one that will follow you after your death, unforgivable and as much a marker on your soul as those epigenetic changes are in the ladder of your DNA. “If anger reaches the point of deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor,” the catechism says, “it is gravely against charity.” Women get angry enough to kill, but hardly at the same rates men do; street homicides are primarily male-on-male crimes, and domestic murders are overwhelmingly examples of men killing women. This doesn’t mean women don’t or can’t murder people or feel wrath; the “deliberate desire to kill” doesn’t necessarily have a gender. The act of killing, however, does.

But women are also “cute” when they’re angry, “spunky” and “sparky” and every other adorable adjective you want to layer on in order to avoid the fact that women’s anger is so swiftly dismissed that it never has the capacity to develop any consequences, to scare anyone into change. If women’s anger were allowed to be frightening, that would also mean facing the realities of letting it be unleashed. Women’s anger may have, as Rebecca Traister says, “the power to change the world.” But we have to admit that for most women, it has yet to be set free and channeled to any degree that is truly world-changing.

In her landmark book of feminist theology, She Who Is, Elizabeth Johnson tells us that “a passion that often accompanies action on behalf of justice is righteous wrath,” the response to the violation of human beings. Women, including many women religious like Johnson, have been taught not only to suppress their anger but that their anger is “something to be avoided, not nice, even sinful.”

Sisters and women in the Catholic church are expected to feel angry on behalf of the poor and the marginalized, to feel the anger of the Psalms and of Jesus flipping tables in the temple. That’s righteous anger. But what Johnson and other Catholic women regularly experience is being told to mute, deny, or move past their anger at the church itself. I can’t count the number of Catholic women I know who have been fired or had books canceled, articles pulled, and speaking engagements called off when they dared to be publicly angry about misogyny and corruption in the institutional church. The is the Janus face that tells women to be angry on behalf of others, but to forgive and let go and move past their own histories of trauma and hurt.

Perhaps righteous anger in women is in some ways more acceptable. After all, caring for the oppressed and downtrodden is built into the foundational values of every world religion. But the real threat is the irrational, everyday kind of anger that boils up from hormones and misogyny and racism and body-policing and constantly being told that you are getting everything wrong: wearing the wrong bra size and washing your hair wrong and having the wrong kind of eyebrows and wearing the wrong jeans for your figure/age and wrongly assuming that those years and years of perfecting your “I’m not angry” face have actually worked, because every woman apparently has a “bitch face,” and nothing turns a woman into a bitch faster than expressing her anger. And what is a bitch, after all, but a name for a female dog: bred and born to be brought to heel.

For women this anger is intertwined with our experiences of religion, particularly in this era when the failures and abuses perpetrated by religious leaders are regularly laid bare for the world to see. Throughout the Bible, it is trust in God that brings people to safety, that shepherds them away from danger, that escorts them out of this life with grace. But when churches you invest faith and trust in victimize the most vulnerable, anger seems like a perfectly logical response.

I became a journalist who sometimes writes about clergy abuse because I was also a victim of sexual abuse. Because I was a child when it first happened, the patterns of abuse of the young and of women in particular are glaringly obvious to me as patterns we have yet to break. Hundreds of years of silencing and cover-ups will never come to an end until we allow victims to be angry about what happened to them; until we stand before that anger, witness it, and allow it to change us. And this same story unfolds in so many churches, so many denominations, so many faiths. Sometimes I can channel my anger into empathy, and what enables me to keep doing the work is my capacity to share others’ experiences of shame, humiliation, and pain. I have felt those things, too, and I have been angry that anyone has been made to feel that way.

But my anger has never changed anything on a large scale, in the long run. It has perhaps moved people to reexamine patterns of behavior, but institutionally? No. My devotion to Dorothy Day as a model for living a life of faith is not just the sense that she is a model of self-abnegation, of the kenotic self-emptying modeled for us in the life of Christ, but also in the sense that she was angry, and particularly angry on behalf of the vulnerable, and in that sense, angry on behalf of herself because she, too, was vulnerable, just a child, alone. Perhaps that kind of anger only changes one person at a time. Perhaps it shifts things in increments.

I understand women’s vulnerabilities with a particular acuteness. When my female students tell me about being groped, dismissed, mansplained, date-raped, talked over, passed over, silenced, or erased, I know that anger. I have held it closely for fifty years, getting to know it with an intimacy that sometimes startles me. Yet the righteous anger I feel on behalf of other women, the poor, immigrants, queer people, everyone marginalized and trampled upon by this system has also fueled the best of my work. Has this kind of anger changed the world? No. But what if women’s anger is something we still need to learn to listen to, and to actually hear? In the middle space between her speaking it and how we react, a thousand different things can occur. And maybe, one day, for one person or many, one of them will be change.

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Excerpted from The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World by Kaya Oakes. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Broadleaf Books. Copyright © 2021 by Kaya Oakes. 

Kaya Oakes
Kaya Oakes
Kaya Oakes is a journalist and author of several books, including The Defiant Middle, The Nones Are Alright, and Radical Reinvention. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The Guardian, Slate, Foreign Policy, and The Washington Post, among many other places. She teaches nonfiction writing at UC Berkeley, and was born and raised in Oakland, California, where she still lives.





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