“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 jailors 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 in 1917 with suffragists outside the White House and the brutal treatment she and others endured at the Occoquan workhouse — it is reported that for her noncompliance Day was lifted and slammed down over an iron bench — was a turning point in her own life as much as it was a turning point in the struggle for women’s suffrage.
After the women went on a hunger strike of 10 days, President Woodrow Wilson personally ordered their release and subsequently announced his support for the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, which was passed by Congress less than two years 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 presidential elections to encourage voter turnout. One article from 2012, “Lucy Burns, A Look at a Catholic American Suffragette,” by Michele Stopera Freyhauf, cites Day’s contributions to the struggle and insists that “it is imperative for all women 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.”
If 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.