Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care

By Bourgault, Sophie | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care


Bourgault, Sophie, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


French philosopher Simone Weil died of tuberculosis and self-inflicted starvation in 1943, alone, at the age of thirty-four. Because of her tragic death, precocious mind, intense religiosity, and life-long dedication to ending working-class oppression and all forms of injustice, Weil was crowned after her death with the titles of "saint" and "genius" (Albert Camus and T. S. Eliot were just two among many who used these labels). She also came to be remembered as the "red virgin"--an engaged left-leaning intellectual who shunned the pleasures of the flesh and material comforts for the sake of justice. (1) Many biographers have commented at length on Weils discomfort with bodily contact, food, and sexuality (the disturbing subtext here is that it is particularly strange for a woman to eschew romantic love, children, or sex). Many more have commented on her almost complete silence on the significance of gender. Aside from a few (but important) comments in La condition ouvriere Weil rarely spoke about misogyny and repressive gender dynamics, and she said next to nothing about motherhood and the family. If Weil denounced in her writing the fact that oppression in factories was a lot worse for women than men (in light of an omnipresent sexism), this did not stop her from expressing, within the same text, great appreciation for men's intellect and companionship and very little for women's. (2) Sian Reynolds is right to conclude that "despite her lucidity about the plight of women workers, it is hard to find much evidence of genuine fellow feeling for them." (3) And as her biographer Simone Petrement has noted, Weil cursed the fact that she was born in a woman's body and always did her best to suppress signs of femininity. This is perhaps not surprising given that Simone's mother openly admitted that she much preferred boys to girls and that she always did her best to cultivate in her daughter what she considered to be masculine virtues. (4)

In light of all these observations some may be surprised to learn that over the course of the last decades Weil's name has often been invoked in the work of feminist care theorists--most notably in Joan Tronto's Moral Boundaries, Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking, and Nel Noddings's The Maternal Factor. Inspired by this body of work, many American and French scholars in sociology, medicine, and nursing have eagerly followed suit and turned to Weil--and most specifically to her concept of attention. In the eyes of many Weil's notion of attention is helpful for thinking about meaningful relationships between caregivers and care recipients. (5) Joan Tronto, for instance, believes that Weilian attention, because it is so radically other-oriented, is quite useful for capturing what is required for the good care of others: "one needs, in a sense, to suspend one's own goals, ambitions, plans of life, and concerns, in order to recognize and to be attentive to others." (6) But there is something puzzling about the fact that the authority of Simone Weil has been invoked by a champion of "maternal thinking" like Ruddick and by scholars interested in developing an approach to morality and politics that is committed to ending oppressive patterns of care within homes and within political communities. (7) Did we not just see above that Weil displayed a striking lack of attunement to issues surrounding maternal love and gender? Should Weil's (almost complete) silence on matters related to gendered care practices and the family not give care theorists pause as they turn to her work? Over the next few pages I would like to show that dismissing Weil on that basis would be a mistake. The fact that Weil's account of human vulnerability, neediness, and duties is not gendered is one of the many reasons why we should attend to her work. While Weil may not be, on the surface, an author who can readily be labeled as feminist, I would like to show that her political thought and moral philosophy do represent an important intellectual resource for feminists today. …

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