When Kate Winslet became the subject of a Fathers4Justice campaign last month, the world watched as a glamorous Hollywood icon became embroiled in the gritty debate on fathers’ rights.
No place for an Oscar-winning screen star, the 38-year-old was unimpressed when the equal parenting group used her home life as the launch of their Crummy Mummy ad campaign.
The initiative, which attempts to stop women denying fathers access to their families, coincided with the birth of Winslet’s latest child – Bear – and followed comments she’d made to fashion bible Vogue, which said: ‘None of this 50/50 time with the mums and dads – my children live with me; that is it.’
The advert, which ran in the Daily Express, criticised the Titanic star for her comments on shared parenting and re-ignited the debate on our country’s creaking custody courts.
Unsurprisingly, Kate – who also has a 13-year-old daughter, Mia, from her first marriage to director Jim Threapleton and a nine-year-old son, Joe, from her second marriage to Sam Mendes – objected to becoming a poster girl for sexist mothers, launching a legal threat against F4J along the way with high-power law firm Schillings.
But, rather than finding angry men in Batman costumes at the helm, the kingpin was – perhaps surprisingly – a woman.
Nadine O’Connor was the brains, the braun and the balls behind the controversial ad, which directly questioned a woman’s automatic, unquestioned power in family law.
So the first question when we meet in London’s Waterloo is perhaps an obvious one: why on earth would she want to swap sisterhood for a superhero suit? After all, no matter how powerful women have become in recent years, the partnership remains an unlikely one.
The answer, it seems, is simple. From 2002 to 2012, Nadine – a devoted mother-of-two – had her own devastating insight into what fathers experience on a regular basis. And it moved her.
For ten years she endured 25 judges, 70 hearings, 54 criminal allegations, 45 court orders and over £120,000 in legal bills when a dispute with her ex-husband over residency of their daughter turned into a living nightmare.
Despite offering him shared residency and unlimited contact, the dispute continued for over a decade because her ex wanted sole custody at the exclusion of Nadine.
During that time she lost her home, her job, her health and nearly her mind as she was driven to the edge of a breakdown.
But, rather than becoming angry with men, she identified with them – and got angry with the system.
‘In 2005, three years into my own battle, a girlfriend told me about Fathers4Justice. She said my story sounded like that of the men she’d read about in the papers, so I went to a meeting with my Dad,’ she says.
‘I had second thoughts and very nearly didn’t go because I was worried they’d be hostile towards women, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, they saved me.’
Several years of activism followed – including interrupting a live BBC broadcast of the National Lottery – but fast-forward to the present day and Nadine, who is fashionable and funny as well as fantastically formidable, is now the organisation’s campaign manager: uniting men who, ironically, have been disenfranchised by women.
Specifically, between 2010-12, she led negotiations with both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on family law reform.
But how did such an unlikely relationship blossom? ‘I came to Father4Justice for help because there were no women’s groups who could support me in the same way,’ she adds, matter-of-factly. ‘Had they been hostile or campaigning to take power away from women then I wouldn’t have got involved. But F4J have never done that. They simply ask that fathers be given the same power as women.’
This message, she says, formed an integral part of her recent work with ‘the Kate campaign’ because, socially and legally, it remains off-limits. Even in the upper echelons of LA.
But Nadine’s criticisms aren’t just reserved for Winslet. Kim Basinger, Katie Holmes and Halle Berry are all next in line for a new set of adverts which are expected to run in national newspapers, next month.
Meanwhile, rumours are abound that Geri Halliwell is also on their hit list while another Winslet ad, featuring comments by her ex Jim Threapleton – who previously spoke out in defence of F4J – is currently in production and threatens to continue the furore.
‘Kate still needs to retract her comments and make a statement supporting 50/50 shared parenting. That’s all we ever wanted,’ Nadine says, passionately.
‘And we’ll continue until she does’.
Clearly, as her attitude to Hollywood’s leading ladies may indicate, Nadine has no concerns about impressing her fellow females simply because they share the same XX chromosomes.
‘The only reactions from women that I need to validate what I do are those of my daughter, my mother and my closest female friends who all completely understand the importance of the campaign,’ she says.
Part of that, she confesses, includes questioning and rejecting modern feminism.
‘Thatcher said feminism was trade unionism for women and I agree with that. Instead, I believe in equality for both sexes. Neither gender should pursue equality at the expense of the other.
‘Over the last 20 years the original feminist movement has been hijacked by radical feminism and this has profoundly damaged women’s campaign for equality, of which there are still areas that needs addressing. Any kind of ‘ism’ is generally bad news and feminism has become a form of extremism, especially with the anti-father ideology they support.
‘If people think that’s controversial perhaps they should ask themselves why.’
That said, this woman on a mission bristles at the suggestion that what she is doing is actually harming women’s liberation. She claims the opposite is true.
‘I spend much of my working day supporting women, mothers, grandmothers and sisters to help them see their children, grandchildren and nephews and nieces,’ she asserts. ‘Unlike the law, I don’t discriminate on the basis of gender.’
This aside, she admits that being a woman in her role certainly has some advantages.
‘It should be irrelevant that I am a woman doing this job, but I would be wrong pretending it does not have an effect on how some people view the campaign.
‘One third of F4J’s registered supporters are women and we have only ever had women run the Fathers4Justice campaign office. The most important effect of having a woman running F4J is that it helps people understand family breakdown and contact denial can happen to anyone, mother or father.’
Compellingly, the facts speak for themselves.
According to The Office of National Statistics, one in three youngsters now have no access to their father – which equates to almost four million UK children nationwide.
This isn’t because men are feckless fathers – although, admittedly, countless are – but because around 200 men are denied access to their children by secret family law courts every single day. Adding insult to injury, these men have no robust legal rights to see their offspring, despite being forced to pay for them via the Child Support Agency.
Ironically, at a time when feminists are campaigning for women to appear on British bank notes (even though they already feature The Queen) men frequently spend tens of thousands of pounds to obtain court orders that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Meanwhile, grandparents don’t fare any better either. Which, Nadine says, is another reason why her work is as relevant as ever.
‘F4J is even more important today than it was back in 2001 because society has become so engrained with the anti-father rhetoric that children are growing up with a warped sense of self-worth and family,’ adds Nadine, who confesses particular concern for her own son.
In fact, she has a stark message for all men and boys: stay single and childless.
‘Don’t do it. Don’t get married and don’t have children. As it stands you have no rights whatsoever and statistically being a father does not have a happy ending – you will be reduced to the status of a sperm bank and a cashpoint.
‘Everyone knows somebody touched by the cancer of family breakdown. We are only looking for a cure. Even if they are happily in a relationship and not facing family breakdown, if they have children, especially if they have a son, then statistically they could be the next person who calls our campaign group.’
So what needs to change in order for everyone to benefit from equal parenting? A massive, time-consuming, expensive overhaul of the legal profession and governmental child care agencies?
‘It’s very simple,’ she says. ‘In fact, it may be too simple for the government to comprehend. All they need to do is change the law to give both parents equal rights and to make the starting point 50/50.
‘If a woman feels uncomfortable with me doing that then it says more about her than it does about me.’