Why ‘Labor’ is a Woman’s Word and Cowboys Can’t Be Trusted

It’s time to talk about women’s economics with attitude. It’s time to laugh at what is often absurd and call out what is dangerous. By focusing on voices not typically part of mainstream man-to-man economic discourse, Women Unscrewing Screwnomics will bring you news of hopeful and practical changes and celebrate an economy waged as life—not as war.

On Labor Day, I caught part of VP candidate Kamala Harris’s news event on CNN. She was in Milwaukee to visit Jacob Blake, the Black father shot in the back seven times by police. She toured a union training program for electrical workers there and had met up with local Black business owners. She noted to the press that “Up to 90 percent of minority and women-owned small businesses did not get the benefit of the PPP.” 

(The PPP is the Payroll Protection Program from the federal CARES Act, intended to help small businesses keep their employees. But the fine print in the law—oops—largely helped a number of huge hotel and hospitality chains, including the Trump Organization, according to Forbes.) 

Like every woman I know, I’m thrilled to anticipate Kamala’s election. Her being next in line for the presidency post-Biden—OMG, just imagine!

Republicans do; Trump is already repeating Kamala’s name like an incantation for his red-capped-rally audiences: her election would be an “insult” for this country, said he, and a tightly packed, mask-less crowd groaned aloud.

Republicans call Harris a left-leaning socialist, like Joe Biden. This must refer to their joint notion that some collective public services remain needed. Old time Democrats gave us Social Security, Medicare and public education from Title I through Title IX, funding schools in poor Black neighborhoods and rural towns and women’s sports and rape prevention on campuses—solid proof of radical socialism.

Back in the day, even Republicans were socialists of this sort. President Eisenhower pushed for our publicly funded national highway system in 1956, proudly called the biggest public works project in U.S. history.

Nixon created a new Environmental Protection Agency.

Where’d they get public money for this? In Eisenhower’s era the graduated income tax rate on the wealthiest was 91 percent, compared to today’s 24.7 percent effective federal tax for the One Percent. 

So on Labor Day, who did “socialist” Kamala talk about? Or rather what did television media present?

Like the PPP itself, she spoke of small business owners, entrepreneurship, and the need for capital. In the newscast I saw, the word “labor” did not come out of her mouth except to say Labor Day. I did not hear her talk of “workers,” a commie-pinko word. (She did speak of the “dignity of work” in the full rendition on C-Span.)

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This newer brand of American socialism looks to the job-creators, not the jobs. It endorses Wall Street’s cheery wealth despite misery on Main Street. It’s a faith that believes in the near-sacred Market, a faith even workers at the bottom of the pyramid scheme aspire to. It’s why we have state lotteries. Millionaires and billionaires are our American ideal. 

Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), highlighted growing inequality, pointed out how consolidated wealth cannot help but increase the number of millionaires and billionaires, or the size of growing fortunes. It’s just how math works. Yet millionaires and billionaires as a marker of capitalist success saturates U.S. culture. 

Why 'Labor' is a Woman’s Word and Cowboys Can’t Be Trusted
A July 2014 protest against Citizens United. (Joe Brusky / Flickr)

Witness Bill Gate’s influence today on education, on agriculture and on the Paris Accords. What problem can’t he solve?

Billionaires’ wisdom applies to all subjects, like governance according to the Koch brothers. Even our Supreme Court—in Citizens United—finds it natural and right for the One Percent to give moneyed voice to rich mens’ ideas, however wacky.

We’re all one big, global Market now and life is largely a matter of finding the right branding for lifestyles to emulate. If you worry about consumption of the planet, turn no longer to the government’s EPA or the mapping powers of NASA—but to Jeff Bezos, now richer than Bill Gates, with his Blue Origins program; or to Elon Musk and his SpaceX. With the right science, tech billionaires will blast off to a planet not yet sucked dry. 

To prove how equal and fair is this U.S. ideal of savior billionaires, we now have Female Founders. Some are women whose companies get funded by impact investors in search of a “unicorn,” a term coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee. Unicorn describes a private tech company that quickly returns more than $1 billion to early investors in “liquidity events.” These include going public on the stock market, enabling investors to cash out quickly. 

Google was one such unicorn, Microsoft was another, Facebook was, Amazon was—all creating male billionaires. But now startup founders Rachel Carlson and Brittany Stitch have made female unicorn status with their disruptive for-profit Guild Education. It brokers online ed with corporations like Wal-Mart, Disney and Chipotle, who make this an employee benefit.

The education is Market-driven, narrowed to technical skills and business savvy. Guild takes a slice of college recruitment budgets, and a piece from sponsoring corporations. They call it a win-win-win ecosystem, but critics say it deepens employee dependence and corporate control.

Aileen Lee, early investor in Guild, owns an impact investor company she named—wait for it—Cowboy Ventures. At a recent FortunesponsoredMost Powerful Women” event, Lee explained that despite what’s going on in the broader economy, it’s a “total bull market all the time” for tech businesses. Bulls, brands, billionaires—her company studies trends of the past decade in Silicon Valley’s 60,000 tech startups, data useful for investors with big capital. 

The skies over Silicon Valley and all the west coast glow orange from the fires of a climate crisis, but you can trust a cowboy, remember—the way we trusted Marlboro smokes? C’mon, Lee’s brand is just about branding. If Aileen had named her company Barbie Ventures, or Home-Knitters Ventures, who would trust her to come up with the bucks to produce another unicorn? 

Do you believe in unicorns? Is that where women’s future lies? Recently there’s been a rash of shame-blaming of female founders who turn out to be terrible bosses.

The CEO of Reformation, a popular women’s clothing line, Yael Aflalo admitted to Fortune that she was not a very good leader. She and other females tend to accept blame, says Aileen Lee, who suggested:

“You’ve just got to be super careful about everything you do because people are just looking to throw stones at every female CEO out there.” 

So true. Women founders try harder to be fair and still get called out. The old double standard applies to Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. His company’s been fined over $44 billion for cheating since 2008’s crash, and that earned him a raise in 2020 to $31.5 million per year. 

The past forty years, blue Dems and red Repubs have both bought the idea of a “free market,” an ideal said to trickle-down prosperity best when most free of government regulation. Both parties have reigned over a steady decline of labors’ bargaining rights and workers’ pay and benefits, both parties convinced of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, “There Is No Alternative.” 

Why 'Labor' is a Woman’s Word and Cowboys Can’t Be Trusted
Women Workers Rising rally on International Women’s Day in March 2017. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

As old lefty ideals like universal old age pensions, public lands and waters, public health, housing and education, get starved and discredited, they’re replaced by big pharma, big agriculture, big education, big Space-X-Blue-Origins. Both political parties perpetuate this new faith in unicorns: the right brands, the lavish lifestyles, the billionaires’ wisdom. Politicians will persist in this trust even should all female unicorns vote for our Kamala. Maybe especially then. 

What is needed is an ideal honoring labor producing real stuff for real life, over money and data from a simulated world. Radical feminist Mary Daly linked the word labor to women’s toil giving birth and the Latin word, labia, and the fabled Amazon weapon, the labrys.

Birthing the future is hard, hot, physical, bloody work. It is different as women are, but equal to that of any steelworker, or essential meat packer, or firefighter—or cowboy. 

And unicorns? They’re a too-phallic fantasy. Prince Charming no doubt rode one. 

Most women today have outgrown rainbow fantasies, too busy working at least two shifts a day, one at home and one in a job market that discounts them every chance it gets. It’s time female founders and female workers and female candidates abandon old cowboy ethics. Piketty’s second book, Capital and Ideology (2019) blames wrong ideals for the fix we’re in. He doesn’t say these are male ideals, but I do. 

Piketty’s solutions? The public, we the people, need not be poor, as so many women are. By means of democracy, we can tax income, tax wealth, tax inheritance, and give workers a say in what happens inside corporations. 

Jumping off unicorns, our feet will hit the ground, our real source of wealth, and we can more fairly create big public works that empower, not impoverish, that help labor and labias.

Mama-Kamala, you know how our suppers get grown, shopped and cooked—and by whom. Speak of us, the majority, and how we women workers will not be bought, kept or branded. 


Rickey Gard Diamond’s latest book, Screwnomics, is prompting EconoGirlfriend Conversations around the country, many sponsored by The Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom., and the educational nonprofit An Economy of Our Own. Learn more at www.screwnomics.org and www.WILPFUS.org.