Frances O’Grady: “Our goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings”

The General secretary of the TUC takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?
The Pill – one small step for a woman to take control of her own life but a giant step for womankind. And at least as important as the invention that put men on the moon.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?
That global warming is real, and a direct result of our use and abuse of the planet.

What is the most important sporting event of the past hundred years?
The 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics, when the medal-winning athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with Peter Norman’s support, raised black-gloved salutes to protest against racial segregation in the US and South Africa, and racism in sport. Their subsequent vilification by some governments and the Olympic establishment belies the myth that sport can be a politics-free zone.

Which book has had the greatest impact on you?
Socialism Made Easy by James Connolly, a gift from my grandad. The film: Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzmán (2010).

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?
Clement Attlee, for his recognition that the greater the economic difficulties, the greater the need for social justice.

Who is the most significant author or playwright?
Roy Williams, author of the play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, who can transform the audience as well as the stage.

And which artist has had the greatest impact on you?
Francis Bacon, whose brilliance offended the taste of the narrow-minded.

How about anyone in business? With the centenary year of the Dublin Lockout, I will interpret this broadly and give the honour to “Big Jim” Larkin. His promise that new unionism could lead to new hope and inspiration still holds true.

And sportsperson?
The former Arsenal Ladies captain Faye White, who also won 90 caps for England. For the record, she retired because her knees were dodgy – not because she had a baby.

Who is the most influential philanthropist of the past hundred years?
I am struck by research which shows that, as a proportion of income, the more money people have, the less they give. A pinstriped philanthropist is hard to find. But the lifelong dedication to people’s well-being and rights shown by the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson offers a good example of the original meaning of the term.

What is your favourite quotation?
From the poem “London” by William Blake – which explains why we need the power of imagination to free ourselves:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

What is your favourite speech?
The Clydeside trade union activist Jimmy Reid’s speech to Glasgow University in 1972, because it serves as a reminder to trade unionists that our ultimate goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next hundred years?
The development of artificial intelligence. As with any new technology, how it will shape our lives depends on whose interests it is used to serve.

What is your greatest concern about the future?
That unpopular governments will resort to conventional methods of digging themselves out of an economic hole: war.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
There will be a movement for economic democracy in the 21st century akin to the Chartist movement for universal suffrage in the 19th century. The global concentration of power, wealth and capital is unsustainable.

What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
Greater equality and democracy. As the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated so profoundly, it is our best chance of liberating the human spirit.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

Show Hide image

Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.