Peter and Women

Fragment from an Unpublished Manuscript
This story is included in these collections

There has been a faithful friend of Peter whom I would like to write about, Lillian Weiss, who has been a devoted follower of his since our paper first was published back in 1933. She is a convert from Judaism who earns her living by cooking and housework. Out of her wages, she has bought Peter eye-glasses, clothes, shoes, suits—and because she has always been poor too, her gifts have come from rummage sales and second-hand shops.

She is one of those I think of with respect for her poverty, her hardships, and her life of hard work.

Here is part of a letter she wrote once to Peter. It was after she had known him for three years that she ventured to speak of herself:

"May I border on the personal for a few minutes, hoping I will not prove a bore, to state only one incident of God's protection? As a child of not quite fifteen, a speaker at a Protestant mission I went to, advised us all to own a New Testament, which I had the fortune to purchase soon after in pin type and small size for a few cents at a secondhand book store. I read the accounts of the sacred passion of Christ in the different gospels, alone, at the top of a hill in Central Park at 106th Street, and felt keenly for the suffering of Christ in my Gospel meditations, and concealed the small-size Testament in my stocking when home, and at night under my pillow on the black leather couch in the kitchen where I slept.

"For Labor Day I had an appointment with a girl chum Fanny but at daybreak my father who chanced into the kitchen, found my Testament on the floor beside me, and at once aroused my mother with the find. She awoke me and ordered me out of her house at once, forbidding me to comb or wash, told me not to go near my sister, and she sent me forth into the early break of day saying, 'You are easily fooled, you'll land into the gutter anyway some day, you might as well go now.'

"I walked from 110th Street to Bronx Park and had a capital of eight cents. I purchased a morning paper for two, but could not qualify to answer any of the ads, and I had nothing to eat since the day before. It was late in the afternoon when I decided to spend my nickel to get the advice of my girl chum. I got off at 116th Street and paused to try to help a woman seated on the steps of a private house to her feet. She was intoxicated and some men took her away. A middle aged man engaged me in conversation.'Your eyes are all red; what were you crying about, you're too nice to bother with drunken people.'

"I told him I had been crying because I had no success all day looking for work. He wrote a name on a slip of paper and the address and told me to go right over as his wife needed a companion, but he could not go with me. The job was so easy, he said, and he made me promise I would stop for nothing but go at once, and he shook my hand and then as I skipped along only God took care of me. A woman ran after me, calling 'little girl' a few times until I turned around. 'What did that man say to you?' 'He is sending me to a position.' 'Well, if you go to that position, you'll never see the light of day again. I was sitting at the parlor window with my mother watching you and I said, the devil is in that man, and I wonder what he is saying to that little girl, and I was glad when he went in the opposite direction. Mother said, Don't interfere, but I threw my baby in my mother's lap—see, there she is holding my baby, and I flew out after you.'

"Yes, I have much to thank God for."

 

PETER'S IDEA OF a valiant woman, as is that of the Church, is the picture of the holy woman, portrayed in the thirty-first Book of Proverbs:

Who shall find a valiant woman?

Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.

The heart of her husband trusteth in her;

And he shall have no need of spoils.

She will render him good and not evil

All the days of her life.

She hath sought wool and flax,

And hath wrought by the counsel of her hands.

She is like the merchant's ship;

She bringeth her bread from afar,

And she has risen in the night, and given a prey to her household,

And victuals to her maidens.

She hath considered a field and bought it

With the fruit of her hand she hath planted a vineyard.

 

She hath girded her loins with strength

And hath strengthened her arm

She hath tasted and seen that her traffic is good.

Her lamp shall not be put out by night.

She hath put out her hand to strong things;

And her fingers hath taken hold of its spindle.

 

She hath opened her hands to the needy

And stretched out her hands to the poor.

She shall not fear for her house in the cold of snow;

For her domestics are clothed with double garments.

She hath made for herself clothing of tapestry;

Fine linen and purple is her covering.

Her husband is honorable in the gates,

When he sitteth among the senators of the land.

She made fine linen and sold it, and delivered a girdle to the Canaanite.

Strength and beauty are her clothing

And she shall laugh in the latter day.

 

She hath opened her mouth to wisdom;

And the law of clemency is on her tongue.

She hath looked well to the paths of her house,

And hath not eaten her bread idle.

Her children rose up and called her blessed.

Her husband, and he praiseth her.

 

Many daughters have gathered together riches;

But thou has surpassed them all.

Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain;

The woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

Give her of the fruit of her hands;

And let her works praise her in the gates.

This of course is the picture of a queen, sung by her son Lemuel, but Peter would apply it to a woman in the slums, to a peasant woman on the land.

The poem depicts Peter's vision of a philosophy of labor, of love and joy in work, a sense of the beauty of work. It clearly emphasizes the sense of personal responsibility, the practice of the Works of Mercy, the care for others around her, the selflessness of the mother of a household.

In discussing women Peter always gets back to his thesis that people in the cities are cut off from the sources of life by the urban cultural pattern.

All great civilizations, he points out, have been based on a sound agriculture. The cities of the past have been comparatively small, and represent the flowering of the culture of the countryside.

"Woman is matter, man is spirit," Peter said one time, and none of us understood him.

But he was thinking of woman and her nature which is so close to the sources of life, most completely herself when she is caring for growing things, providing for them, feeding them, clothing them. It is not an empty phrase—"Mother Earth," fecund, warm, rich, constant and silent.

Meditating on these things, one begins to understand what Peter means when he says "woman is matter." Unless she uses her body to produce and her hands to serve her young, she is unfulfilled, undeveloped, stunted and thwarted.

The valiant woman was strong—she put her hand to strong things. She bore burdens, she worked late, "she hath risen in the night," "her lamp, shall not be put out." Yet always strong, healthy—"she hath strengthened her arm, she hath tasted and seen that her traffic is good."

The peculiar lack of balance in our present day living is epitomized for Peter by the fact that the rich, who have earned their money by factories, value only the "handmade."

"You too can be rich," cries Peter, "you too can put your hands to the crafts, furnish homes, weave and spin, bake bread. Then you will value what you have produced. Then you will put yourself into it. Then you will have given yourself. Then you will begin to understand the sacramentality of life. You will understand the sacramental principle, you will begin to see God in all things. You will look upon what God has made, and find it good. You will look at things as God looks at them. You will begin to have the mentality of sons of God, daughters of God."

 

IN THE TEN years we have been exercising personal responsibility and taking in the homeless in New York, there have been many women coming to us, and one of the things that always astounded me about them was that they represented to a fearful degree, the ravages of our industrial life. Of course we got the worst of cases, to use a horrid word. We got girls who had been factory workers, chambermaids, restaurant and office workers, girls who had been working in industry from their earliest childhood, who had come from bad homes of the grossest materialism, the kind of materialism which had no respect for the material of life. They did not know how to cook, nor sew, and at the best they were able, painfully, to do a little cleaning. They certainly had little joy in their work. It was all drudgery to them. They suffered from many ailments, from bad food, from worry, from insufficient sleep. They suffered from f ear.

Beatrice provided for us, I always thought, an extreme example of the rootless woman. She and her sister had come from Ireland just before the depression; when her sister got work as a traveling saleswoman, Beatrice found work as a chambermaid. Then during the depression she found nothing, or at least nothing she wanted to do, or could do. I do not see how she could have done housework myself, because once when she was doing some cleaning she put water on the stove to heat in a wooden bucket. Another time she was given a very good dress, a woolen suit from Peck and Peck, which one of our friends had sent in, and the next week I found Beatrice using the skirt of it for a mop cloth. Whether she did this deliberately to show her contempt for the charity of the rich, I do not know. She was a beautiful young thing with a queenly and scornful air.

I used to worry about her a good deal because she was so beautiful and so reckless. When she could not sleep at night she used to get up at two o'clock in the morning and walk across Manhattan bridge. She was a creature of impulse and energy and became very impatient with those on the farm who sat and talked of building houses and never got anywhere with it.

"If you want to build, why don't you start? Why don't you dig? I could start to build a house this morning."

Everyone laughed at her, but after breakfast she went out, found tools for herself, and started digging. She picked a spot at random, between the main house and the chicken coop, well within the sight of all, and spent the entire morning digging with pickax and spade and by noon a sizable hole was done.

She left off at noon, and aside from the comments, "Did you see what that crazy Beatrice was doing all morning?" there was no other comment on her labor. Except perhaps to criticize the spot chosen for a house. Did she have a point in this strange display of energy? If so it was quite lost on the young men who sat around talking about building.

She was a literal creature, and once one of the men who had come to New York from the Boston house of hospitality, mentioned that there was a violin in the Boston house, which she could have if she wished. She left the lunch table in New York and was not seen for a few days. When she walked in not many nights after, she reported, "there is no violin up there," and sat down to eat. She had hitch-hiked to Boston, with not a cent of money in her pocket, made her inquiry and hitchhiked back again.

She had spent several years with us, trying to be useful by mopping floors and painting when she could lay her hands on the paint. Whenever anyone was in the way of her painting and would not move, she went right on painting right over their shoes.

Then suddenly her sister showed up at the house and insisted on sending Beatrice back to Ireland. Every now and then we heard from her. She missed the excitement, she wrote, of Mott Street. (A good deal of that excitement she made.) Since the war there has been silence.

Beatrice is just one of many women we have had to deal with. There have been feeble-minded women—a woman who sat in her room with a towel tied about her nose with the plaint that there was poison gas in the room. There have been women addicted to drink. There have been women of all nations, Japanese, Chinese, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, German, Italian, Jews, English, Irish, colored women. There have been working women and intellectual women, but when I try to find a valiant woman amongst them, I search in vain.

 

AS I WRITE, thinking back into the past, I do remember such a woman—I met her years ago on the island of Capri, just outside the village of Anacapri. She was the wife of the mayor of the little town, a Norwegian, I believe, and she was a woman of culture and gentleness and beauty. She could play the piano and the harp. The shelves of her library were covered with the books she had read. Her walls were hung with tapestries, her furniture upholstered with what she had made. She was a wood carver, she could spin and weave. She made her wine, she dried her fruits, she salted down the anchovies her husband's fisher­ men brought in. She managed her large house­ hold and ministered to the poor.

And there are valiant women, and the makings of valiant women with us here in the United States. These are women with an integrated outlook on life, who correlate the material and the spiritual, who understand what Peter is talking about when he discourses on "the soul of woman."

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

Also by this author
The House on Mott Street
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Collections