When the then Lady Nicholson was made a life peer in 1997, she could hardly have imagined that 25 years down the line, she would be considered a champion of women’s rights by today’s feminists, become a poster girl for parenting website Mumsnet and a treasured ally of gay campaigning groups.
Yet aged 80, that’s where she finds herself, having become a very determined and vocal player in the push back against what she considers to be the erosion of women’s rights and free speech at the hands of trans activists.
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is her full title — ‘such a mouthful isn’t it? You must call me Emma,’ she says when we meet. These days she’s barely out of the news as one of the few politicians prepared to nail her colours to the mast and say that she does not think it’s possible to change sex.
Baroness Nicholson has become a champion of women’s rights for today’s feminists, a poster girl for parenting site Mumsnet and a treasured ally of gay campaigning groups
Baroness Nicholson, pictured with her husband Sir Michael Caine, is one of the few politicians prepared to say that she does not think its possible to change sex
Earlier this month she demanded a sentence review after a male born paedophile was spared jail. Peter Selby pleaded guilty to having over 125,000 images of child abuse but was shown leniency after the court heard the paedophile identified as transgender and was fearful about managing in prison.
So, what does she make of those — such as Keir Starmer and Anneliese Dodds, Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities — who tie themselves in knots when asked the question: what is a woman?
‘I’m ashamed of them,’ she replies. ‘For grown men to pretend they don’t know what a woman is when they have a wife and children. Who are they fooling? But it’s even worse when it’s a woman because that’s a shocking betrayal of one’s own sex.’
Dressed in her immaculate silk two-piece suit and court shoes, Baroness Nicholson looks the picture of a well-to-do English lady. The daughter of Sir Godfrey Nicholson, a Conservative MP, and his wife Lady Katharine (the daughter of the 27th Earl of Crawford), Emma has always been something of a trailblazer.
‘Gender critical feminists’ first came to Emma’s attention in 2017. Pictured is Emma with JK. Rowling at a cocktail party celebrating the auctioning of a handwritten book of wizarding stories in 2007
Before going into politics she worked as a computer programmer and systems analyst in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when most people hadn’t even seen a computer.
She rolls her eyes and shakes her head in exasperation when I ask how she might have reacted then if somebody had said that in the future it would be considered controversial to believe in biological sex?
‘Honestly, how can we be wasting good time and energy saying people are ‘assigned sex at birth?’ There are basic elements of life and to deny them is lunacy. I was born profoundly deaf. That’s how I am, that’s nature. Then nature, unfortunately, took a lot of my sight away when I was nine. I wasn’t assigned deafness at birth.’
So called ‘gender critical feminists’ (those who believe sex is biological and immutable) first came to Emma’s attention when she saw news reports about a group of women who had been attacked at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park in 2017.
‘As a politician’s daughter and the first female in my family in politics, that woke me up immediately. Speakers’ Corner is where everyone can go and say what they want — however dotty.’
She tracked down the women and invited them to meet with her at the House of Lords. They wrote back to say the aggressive scenes at Hyde Park were typical of what was happening all over the country whenever they attempted to speak about women’s issues. After she gave the women assurances about their safety, a large group met Emma at the Lords.
Baroness Nicholson is pictured here with grateful nurses and medical staff at Solotvyno Hospital, Ukraine who received medical supplies funded by the Daily Mail Ukraine appeal campaign in April
‘I arrived to find a room of about 90 people who were being denied freedom of speech. To attack freedom of speech attacks my bloodline, my heart, my feelings, and I just said, ‘Tell me about it’ and they did.’ It was during the meeting that Emma was alerted to a consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act (since dropped) to allow for self-identification (allowing individuals to identify as their chosen gender without medical diagnosis).
‘It was 80 pages long. It wasn’t literate or numerate or competent or logical. It just went on and on and round in circles. I’ve never seen such a poor-quality civil service document in my life. Yet this was a big, circular questionnaire used to potentially shape government policy and I realised there was something going on.’
It was at a second meeting with women’s rights campaigners that Emma spoke to two nurses who told her they had lost their jobs because they had refused to say that trans women were the same as biological women.
For Emma, it was her call to arms.
‘These young women did not have the funding or the contacts to go to an employment tribunal. They’d been destroyed in the early stages of their careers and it’s at that point I thought: ‘Right, I’m in.’ ‘
Emma’s whistleblowers have told her that staff on NHS wards are instructed to deny that males are present on wards if the male in question identifies as female. Pictured is Baroness Nicholson with Prince Charles in 2017
The NHS had previously committed to single-sex wards for the sake of patients’ privacy and dignity. But in 2019 ‘Annex B’ legislation stated that staff should assign accommodation according to how the patient identifies — meaning male-bodied trans women have made their way on to female wards.
To say Emma has the bit between her teeth about this is an understatement. ‘I have written to health ministers a number of times and I’ll be writing a huge letter this week. I’ve told them Annex B is breaking the law and they’ve asked for my reasoning and they’re going to get it . . . in spades.
‘It flies in the face of the 2014 Care Act, which is the bible for the NHS, and it breaks the duty of candour — which says that you must tell a patient the truth.’
Emma’s whistleblowers have told her that staff are instructed to deny that males are present on wards — if the male in question identifies as female.
‘If, as a patient, you see or hear a man and flag it up, you are told that is not the case — there are no men on the ward. If you persist, you’ll be removed from the hospital. I know a number of cases where that’s happened. In other words, the NHS has gone against its own principles. Annex B allows for trans patients to have no need for a Gender Recognition Certificate, to appear fully male in appearance and have access to women’s health care.
Baroness Nicholson said she spent most of her lockdown looking at the issue of Annex B and described it as ‘wicked’
‘I spent most of my lockdown digging into the issue of Annex B and ‘wicked’ is the world I would use to describe it. They are destroying the ethics and integrity of thousands of nurses who are being instructed to lie and they’ve gone about it in the most underhand and deceitful way.’
Emma’s campaigning means that people (‘many hundreds’) reach out to her to confide their experiences — doctors, nurses and patients alike. Earlier this year she revealed, in the Lords, that a patient had been raped on the ward of an NHS hospital.
Under English law, the act of rape is only committed with a penis. The patient went to the police who investigated and were initially told by the hospital that it was not possible as no male was present. Emma stated at the time: ‘It has taken the hospital nearly a year to agree that there was a male on the ward and, yes, this rape happened.
‘What happens is the NHS will ask me to give them the details of the women and the hospitals. Well, for one, they’re not going to look at this objectively and I must protect those who come and tell me things. I’d die at the stake before I betrayed anyone’s confidence.’
Perhaps predictably, Baroness Nicholson’s campaigning led to accusations she was transphobic and she was stripped of her role as honorary vice-president of the Booker Prize Foundation.
Her campaigning on gender means she has had thousands of people reach out to her to share their own experiences
The move came following an online spat with transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf. Emma called Munroe a ‘weird creature’. She apologised and deleted the tweet, but it made no difference. ‘The organisation had been set up and chaired by my late husband [Sir Michael Harris Caine]. I felt terrible because they threw three other people in honorary roles off too including Sir Ronald Harwood, one of our most famous playwrights. I felt so embarrassed that something I had said had ended up hurting them.’
It didn’t stop with the Booker Prize Foundation. Baroness Nicholson was also made to step down from a children’s charity she supported in Devon. She pushed back when attempts were made to kick her off the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, an annual literary prize she set up in her husband’s memory. ‘I fought back and they’ve kept me on the peripheries . . . it’s all made me realise what those poor nurses were facing.’
Anybody trying to permanently ‘cancel’ the formidable baroness is likely to be disappointed. It’s something she has in common with her good friend J.K. Rowling, who also experienced a backlash from trans activists. Together, in 2005, they established the global children’s charity Lumos.
‘When I saw her being criticised, I was appalled. And as for those actors who have her to thank for their whole careers . . .’
She has no truck either with the issue of pronouns. ‘I see it as a triviality that is taking up space it shouldn’t. I’m much more interested in how the NHS decided to bypass Parliament.’
As for claims she is transphobic, Emma says: ‘It’s not a word I recognise. I have been helping trans people for decades. There was a trans woman who was in the police force about 30 years ago and who wasn’t supported after transitioning and I did all I could to help her when I was an MP. She was what I would call a genuine trans woman. The transgender lobby group today is utterly self-absorbed and only interested in its own money and status.
Emma, pictured with husband Michael Caine, said one of the best things that has come out of her campaigning is befriending and making connections with people she might not otherwise have met
‘Lesbians are now facing tremendous harassment and I got in touch with the LGB Alliance when they set themselves up to offer my support and they’ve become great friends — although I do tease them for not giving me a membership. I don’t qualify!
‘The Gay Men’s Network are coming to see me soon to work with me too.’
One of the most uplifting things to have come out of the last few years are the friendships and connections she has established with people she might not have otherwise come into contact with. Does she see an end in sight to what she describes as the ‘lunacy’, I wonder?
‘It’s a bad movement that feeds on a lie — that you can change your sex — and they’ve spun this web of nightmares that is having a physical and mental impact on millions around the world. It’s a family-destructive movement.
‘There’s positive stuff happening in Europe. We’re seeing a big fightback against puberty blockers in France, Sweden and Finland. Good for them.
‘In time what’s happening here will be seen as a national scandal but, by then, it will have left a trail of destruction.’
I do wonder if Baroness Nicholson wouldn’t rather be enjoying a gentle retirement than working full-time as she currently is.
‘I worked as Mrs Thatcher’s vice-chairman with special responsibility for women, at the same time I was director of Save The Children. I couldn’t just sit and allow this to sail past. I want to be helpful while I have the capacity to be helpful.’
Emma loves spending time with her family when she is not campaigning on gender. Pictured: JK Rowling and Baroness Emma Nicholson at JK Rowling’s ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ launch in December 2007
When she’s not immersed in this political hot potato, Emma loves to spend time with her family. ‘I come from a huge family. We had a lunch the other day and 83 cousins rocked up!’
Although family means the world to her, she has no children of her own. She was 46 when she married her businessman husband Sir Michael, who died in 1999. Together, they rescued Amar Kanin, who was horrifically injured in a napalm attack in Iraq when he was ten. Amar, now 43, lives in Devon, and he gives his name to the Amar Foundation, set up by the Nicholsons to help families in crisis around the world.
Despite her tireless work for children, she has no regrets about not having them.
‘I never meant to have any,’ she says. ‘When I was seven, I was visiting a children’s home with my father, and I felt so lucky to have a loving home and I vowed then to not make any more children myself but to find homes for the existing ones who didn’t have them. And I stuck with that.’
As we talk, she checks her emails as more pour in from people seeking her help. This morning it’s a mother worried her confused and ‘questioning’ daughter is being told she is trans and ‘born in the wrong body’ at her secondary school.
‘I know a great organisation who will help her,’ says Emma who puts the mother in touch with the Bayswater Support Group.
Interestingly, she says politicians on both sides of the divide have confided in her that they support her stance but are too scared to say so openly.
In today’s climate many would consider the bold baroness to be a brave soul to be so fearless.
‘This isn’t bravery. Bravery is calmness and the rescuing of others under fire. I see this as the restoration of common sense.’