Well, that's my theory anyway and I'm sticking to it!
I once heard it argued on this feast day that we should forget about St Catherine's engagement in the world and promotion of reform of the Church lest it result in an undesirable feminism, and focus instead on imitating her heroic and extreme asceticism, practical charity and great devotion instead.
Her virtues are certainly extremely important, and what make her a saint! But actually, it strikes me that all of the dimensions of this Doctor of the Church's life - including charitable works, contemplation, intellectual work and active engagement in the issues of the day - are perhaps worth reflecting on. They can be seen as providing something of a model for the active engagement of the laity in the public square that the Pope has been promoting (provided of course that we don't get carried away, and remain docile to the guidance of the Holy Ghost and our pastors as far as this is proper).
And I have to say that St Teresa of Avila's advice on thinking twice about attempting to emulate the extremes of asceticism of the saints, in the absence of a specific call (her formidable looking discipline can still be viewed in Siena), seems pertinent here.
Here is what the Wiki has to say:
"She was born Catherine Benin in Siena, Italy, to Giacomo di Benincasa, a clothdyer, and Lapa Piagenti, possibly daughter of a local poet. Born in 1347, she was the last of 25 children. She took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries....
In about 1366, St Catherine experienced what she described in her letters as a "Mystical Marriage" with Jesus. Her biographer Raymond of Capua also records that she was told by Christ to leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world. Catherine dedicated much of her life to helping the ill and the poor, where she took care of them in hospitals or homes.
Her early pious activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, both women and men, while they also brought her to the attention of the Dominican Order, which called her to Florence in 1374 to interrogate her for possible heresy. After this visit, in which she was deemed sufficiently orthodox, she began travelling with her followers throughout northern and central Italy advocating reform of the clergy and the launch of a new crusade and advising people that repentance and renewal could be done through "the total love for God."
Physical travel was not the only way in which Catherine made her views known. In the early 1370s, she began writing letters to men and women of her circle, increasingly widening her audience to include figures in authority as she begged for peace between the republics and principalities of Italy and for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. She carried on a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, also asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States.
In June of 1376 Catherine went to Avignon herself as ambassador of Florence to make peace with the Papal States, but was unsuccessful. She also tried to convince Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. She impressed the Pope so much that he returned his administration to Rome in January, 1377. Following Gregory's death and during the Western Schism of 1378 she was an adherent of Pope Urban VI, who summoned her to Rome, and stayed at Pope Urban VI's court and tried to convince nobles and cardinals of his legitimacy. She lived in Rome until her death in 1380. The problems of the Western Schism would trouble her until the end of her life.
St Catherine's letters are considered one of the great works of early Tuscan literature. More than 300 letters have survived. In her letters to the Pope, she often referred to him affectionately as "Papa" or "Daddy" ("Babbo" in Italian)....
Her other major work is "The Dialogue of Divine Providence," a dialogue between a soul who "rises up" to God and God himself, and recorded between 1377 and 1378 by members of her circle. Often assumed to be illiterate, Catherine is acknowledged by Raymond in his life of her as capable of reading both Latin and Italian, and another hagiographer, Tommaso Caffarini, claimed that she could write.
St Catherine died of a stroke in Rome, the spring of 1380, at the age of thirty-three...."
The Wiki rather quaintly avoids much mention of her asceticism, but here is what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say:
"From her earliest childhood Catherine began to see visions and to practise extreme austerities.
At the age of seven she consecrated her virginity to Christ; in her sixteenth year she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries, and renewed the life of the anchorites of the desert in a little room in her father's house. After three years of celestial visitations and familiar conversation with Christ, she underwent the mystical experience known as the "spiritual espousals", probably during the carnival of 1366.
She now rejoined her family, began to tend the sick, especially those afflicted with the most repulsive diseases, to serve the poor, and to labour for the conversion of sinners.
Though always suffering terrible physical pain, living for long intervals on practically no food save the Blessed Sacrament, she was ever radiantly happy and full of practical wisdom no less than the highest spiritual insight.
All her contemporaries bear witness to her extraordinary personal charm, which prevailed over the continual persecution to which she was subjected even by the friars of her own order and by her sisters in religion."