Racializing white women’s international thought: Lady Kathleen Simon’s international abolitionist crusade to complete the “unfinished work of Wilberforce,” 1927-1955

During the intermission in the film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the London Pavilion in 1928, British anti-slavery advocate Lady Kathleen Simon made an argument that would form the core of her international thought.[1] She began by extolling William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln for pioneering abolition. She declared that ‘the total abolition of slavery’ in which the ‘white races’ participated had been accomplished, an absolution of their crime. Relaying this triumphant history of white redemption, Simon primed audiences to view twentieth-century international abolition as its continuation. She revealed that slavery persisted ‘on an immense scale’ in ‘dark places of the earth’ and that in Ethiopia ‘peaceful villages are raided, and mothers see their children carried off or massacred before their eyes.’ The 1926 Slavery Convention of the League launched a truly international abolitionist effort, she said, but its engine was public opinion, which had to be roused to indignation on behalf of ‘those poor creatures whose only sin is that God made their skins black.’ ‘For no other reasons,’ Simon added, ‘are they slaves.’

Despite being acclaimed as ‘the leading authority on modern slavery,’ ‘the twentieth-century edition of William Wilberforce,’ and a ‘modern Mrs. Beecher Stowe,’[2] Simon’s international thought has largely eluded study in International Relations (IR).[3] She appears in accounts of her husband and prominent Cabinet Minister Sir John Simon’s legal and political career as his ‘rarely seen’ and difficult second wife[4] and in recent work mainly by historians.[5] Simon published a popular book, Slavery (1929), and called for an international abolitionist “crusade” across hundreds of speeches, lantern lectures, broadcasts, articles, pageant plays, and film screenings in Britain, Europe, and North America from 1927, when she joined the British Anti-Slavery Society and Aborigines’ Friend (Society), until her death in 1955. She corresponded over decades with Pan-Africanist scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President (NAACP) Walter White, and British League of Colored Peoples (LCP) President Dr. Harold Moody.

Three overriding concerns marked Simon’s international thought: the importance of building a popular movement for international abolition, with her book, Slavery, as its centerpiece; improving domestic race relations in the U.S. and Britain, an interest sustained by her relationships with interlocutors of color Du Bois, White, and Moody; and the extent of slavery in Ethiopia, cited by Mussolini as a key justification for invading Ethiopia. Coming of age in the era during which, as Du Bois observed, ‘the world…discovered that it is white’,[6] Simon’s international thought and practice was racialized and racializing. Slavery mapped nineteen areas of the world where Simon’s research indicated slave labor persisted, both as ‘out-and-out property-owning’ and as peonage and pawning,[7] including Ethiopia, Sudan, Arabia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, China, Burma, and Nepal. In each place, Simon deemed British abolition the model to follow. She substantiated claims with figures, quotations, testimonies, and case studies from an empirical record including travelers’ testimony, diplomatic reports, and the League’s ‘completely impartial reports,’[8] limited, as Du Bois noted, to an array of white voices.[9] White reviewers saw unique value in the book’s combination of factual rigor and feminine compassion, thereby identifying two complementary registers of Simon’s thought: “fact” and what Winston Churchill dubbed ‘heartbreak and horror.’[10]

Simon combined these two registers in a public speaking career that crested during the Society’s 1933 celebration of the Centenary of the British Emancipation Act. She employed lurid representations of slavery and implored audiences to ‘to rend the veil and peep at the misery behind,’ detailing flogging, suspension, burning, amputation, and gagging of Black bodies.[11] She blended contemporary testimony with popularized imagery from the Atlantic Slave Trade, dissolving distinctions between the different eras of slavery. This “heartbreak and horror” register was driven by the humanitarian conviction that knowledge of human suffering elicited compassion and compelled assistance: ‘every groan wrung from a black breast will find its echo in a white one.’[12] During the Centenary celebrations, Simon refocused her anti-slavery crusade as what she called ‘a great work of white redemption,’[13] perpetuating a nationalist myth of an abolitionist British state canonized by writers including W.E. Lecky and Reginald Coupland. For Simon, the paramount task was to redress white guilt over the Atlantic Slave Trade, relegating Black freedom to an instrumental concern. To the abolitionist cast of Wilberforce and Lincoln who assuaged white guilt, she added contemporary inheritors ranging from South African statesman Jan Smuts to fascist Italian leader Mussolini.[14]

Alongside abolitionism, the injustice of the domestic ‘color bar’ in the U.S. and Britain preoccupied Simon. Simon argued that white Americans deserved their racial ‘problem’: ‘You brought them [enslaved persons] here by force and now you blame them for being there––it is most unjust.’[15] Simon met Walter White in 1928 at the dedication of a Wilberforce monument in Hull, and they corresponded at length on the NAACP’s anti-lynching advocacy. Simon kept meticulous records of press coverage of lynching, especially the 1931 Scottsboro trials. Simon and Du Bois also sustained decades of correspondence, catalyzed by Du Bois’s critical review of Slavery. Du Bois held Britain’s ‘imperial aggressions’ responsible for modern slavery and for ‘the virtual enslavement of many millions more’ through ‘white profit-making corporations.’[16] Deflecting Du Bois’s capitalist critique, Simon protested that she had been condemned for being both ‘pro-British’ and ‘anti-British.’ Simon told Du Bois repeatedly of her disdain for the common practice of barring Britain’s colonial migrants from restaurants and lodgings on racial grounds. Using her influence as a Cabinet Minister’s wife, Simon vocally opposed discrimination against former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia William Heard during his visit to Edinburgh.[17]

To ‘break down’ the British color bar, Simon also became a trustee of Aggrey House, a Colonial Office-sponsored hostel for African migrants managed by LCP founder Moody. The West African Students Union, later at the helm of popular alternative hostel Africa House, claimed that Colonial Office and LCP joint leadership of Aggrey House made it the domestic extension of government control of colonial subjects abroad.[18] For Simon, there was no conflict; Moody considered Simon ‘the “Mother” of the LCP,’[19] and she praised the LCP for nurturing better British citizens and for achieving ‘better understanding and helpfulness on both sides.’[20]

As the Second World War approached, Simon’s opposition to slavery found its expression in her support for Mussolini’s invasion and annexation of Ethiopia. She argued that in ‘Abyssinia’ slavery existed ‘in every one of its varied forms’ in ‘conditions which a British Foreign Office paper has described as “hell.”’[21] Deeming Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s incremental anti-slavery reforms futile, Simon called for the League to install foreign advisers in Ethiopia and threatened that, if progress towards abolition continued to falter, Ethiopia’s fears of wholesale administration by a European power would be realized (1929: 10). Simon’s belief that Ethiopians were incapable of abolishing slavery without European assistance rested on a historical narrative of deeply rooted enslavement, ethnic conflict, and disorder. Ethiopia’s feudal political economy had long depended on labor and tribute extracted from gabar peasant laborers and enslaved prisoners of war, and the number of enslaved persons surged as Selassie’s predecessor Menelik II expanded and unified Ethiopia.[22] Notwithstanding Selassie’s slew of anti-slavery decrees between 1923 and 1935, Simon claimed slavery remained integral to the Church, Ethiopia’s foremost institution, and embedded in Ethiopian governance, characterized by Rases, local chiefs that autonomously administered localities and militaries.

In September 1935, an Italo-Ethiopian Memorandum to the League provided an important official pretext for Mussolini’s imminent invasion.[23] It outlined Ethiopian violations of border treaties, offenses committed against Italians in Ethiopia, and the ‘flagrant breach’ of Ethiopia’s obligation to abolish slavery as a League member. It quoted Slavery at length to justify Italian intervention, positing that among slavery experts, ‘Lady Simon is especially worthy of note.’[24] In 1938, three years after Mussolini’s full-scale invasion which had deployed poison gas, machine guns, and aerial bombardment against Ethiopian civilians, Simon recalled ‘a long conversation with Signor Mussolini’ for the British press, sharing her belief that his abolitionist motivations were ‘quite sincere.’[25] Simon disavowed what she called ‘the international question to which Italy’s action [in Ethiopia] gave rise,’ circumventing the global political ramifications of fascist war, imperialism, or abolition itself by focusing on the ‘single question’ of slavery (Simon, Abyssinia). Soon, Simon’s husband and the Foreign Secretary, John Simon, was condemned as an architect of appeasement, among the fifteen politicians accused of failing to re-arm in Cato’s famous polemic Guilty Men.[26]

After Ethiopia’s liberation in 1941, it remained under British military administration until 1944 and did not regain its pre-1935 borders until 1955. Simon renewed efforts to influence Ethiopia’s international standing during negotiations for the 1942 and 1944 Anglo-Ethiopian Agreements. In an early articulation of the main British justification for delaying decolonization through to the 1960s, Simon sought to convince British officials to prolong British military administration of Ethiopia, making self-government conditional on ending slavery. Society memoranda proposed indefinite continuation of British administration, not as a military necessity but as an ‘opportunity’ to ‘lay the foundations of good government.’[27] Simon confidentially supported an Italian mandate as late as 1944, even though Selassie had abolished gabar labor and slavery in 1941 and 1942 respectively, and large-scale enslavement had ended by 1945.[28] Despite her claims to humanitarian neutrality, Simon’s efforts to compel Ethiopia to develop according to the metropole’s standards were entangled with British and fascist imperialisms on the eve of decolonization.

Against the backdrop of domestic “color bars,” class conflicts, economic depression, mounting anti-colonial resistance, the first wave of an international women’s movement, fascist geopolitics, and world war, Simon viewed herself as an antiracist champion of enslaved and other non-white persons. Serving to allay white guilt rather than support Black resistance, Simon’s self-titling as ‘ambassadress,’ ‘friend,’ and ‘deliverer’ of enslaved persons reflected her concern to perform a positive white identity.[29] Recovery of Simon’s thought thus shows that the project of recovering white women’s international thought must not fail to reflect on the positionality of its subjects within racialized power relations that granted them political, economic, physical, and other advantages. Attending to the racialized bases of Simon’s thought sheds light on the racialized “edge,” borrowing Ibbett’s term,[30] of historical humanitarian compassion, white antiracism, and white femininity. The role of white women in reproducing global racial hierarchies in colonial, humanitarian, and development contexts is the subject not only of historical inquiry but also of contemporary decolonial and feminist critique. Intellectual histories of white women that render whiteness visible, rather than perpetuating its normative status, may thus reveal connections between the colonial ‘white woman’s burden’[31] and white women’s role in postcolonial and contemporary development and imperial projects. Simon’s racial project was to bolster a positive white internationalist identity as imperial crises intensified.


[1] Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, Papers of Lady Kathleen Harvey Simon (LSP), MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K6, Kathleen Simon, 20/1/1928. “The Address at the London Pavilion.”

[2] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K5, Surrey County Herald, 3/11/1933. Untitled; LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K7a/2, The Advertiser and Times, 12/6/1931a. “Lady Simon Inveighs Against Slavery”; LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K13/1, New York Sun, 8/9/1930. “New York Women Are Once More Stirred by Anti-Slavery Talk.”

[3] An important exception is Shilliam, Robbie. 2016. “Ethiopianness, Englishness, Britishness: Struggles over Imperial Belonging.” Citizenship Studies 20 (2): 243–59.

[4] Jenkins, Roy. 1998. The Chancellors. London: Macmillan: 406; Dutton, David. 1992. A Political Biography of Sir John Simon. London: Aurum Press: 325–326.

[5] For example, Pennybacker, Susan. 2009. From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Forclaz, Amalia Ribi. 2015. Humanitarian Imperialism: The Politics of Anti-Slavery Activism, 1880–1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[6] Du Bois, W.E.B. 1920. Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe: 34.

[7] Simon, Kathleen. 1929. Slavery. London: Hodder and Stoughton: 135.

[8] Ibid.: 9

[9] Du Bois, W.E.B. 1930. “The Browsing Reader.” The Crisis, 37 (April): 129.

[10] Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend. 1930. “Lady Simon’s ‘Great Book’–Slavery. What the Press Says.” Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend 19, no. 4 (January): 161–163; LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s.25/K30, Anti-Slavery Society, n.d. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Retold by the Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill.

[11] Simon, 1929: 262, LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K4/9, Kathleen Simon, n.d. “The Slave Trade and Slavery.” .

[12] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K4/6, Kathleen Simon, handwritten fragment.

[13] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K29/2, Kathleen Simon, 22/5/1933a. “Slavery and the Treatment of Slaves To-Day.”

[14] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K21, Kathleen Simon, n.d., “Review of Wilberforce by Sir Reginald Coupland.”

[15] Aptheker, Herbert (ed.) 1976. The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois. Volume II: Selections, 1934–1944. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press: 159–161, emphasis in original.

[16] Du Bois, 1930: 129.

[17] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K20, Kathleen Simon, 7/9/1943, Letter from to Harold Moody.

[18] Whittall, Daniel. 2011. “Creating Black Places in Imperial London: The League of Colored Peoples and Aggrey House, 1931–1943.” The London Journal, 36 (3): 235.

[19] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K20, Moody, Harold, 25/6/1942. Letter to Kathleen Simon.

[20] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K3, Kathleen Simon, 9/12/1941b. Letter to W.E.B. Du Bois.

[21] Simon, 1929: 8.

[22] Zewde, Bahru. 2001. A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855–1991. Oxford: James Currey, 2nd edn: 92.

[23] Baer, George. 1967. The Coming of the Italian-Ethiopian War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 311–315.

[24] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K23/4, “Italo-Ethiopian Memorandum to the League of Nations, 1935”: 18.

[25] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K1, Manchester Guardian, 11/11/1938. “Italy’s Conquest of Abyssinia: What Envoy Told Lady Simon.”

[26] Cato (pseudonym of Frank Owen, Michael Foot, and Peter Howard). 1940. Guilty Men. London: Gollancz.

[27] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K23, Anti-Slavery Society, 1943. Memorandum to Anthony Eden: 4.

[28] Miers, Suzanne. 2003. Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. London: Rowman and Littlefield: 301–304.

[29] LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K7a/2, The Advertiser and Times, 12/6/1931a. “Lady Simon Inveighs Against Slavery”; LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K4/11, Kathleen Simon, n.d. “War”; LSP, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 25/K5, n.d. Untitled.

[30] Ibbett, Katherine. 2018. Compassion’s Edge: Fellow-Feeling and its Limits in Early Modern France. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[31] Syed, Jawad and Faiza Ali. 2011. “The White Woman’s Burden: From Colonial Civilization to Third World Development.Third World Quarterly 32 (2): 349-365.