Merit – Not – Cracy

I don’t know about you, (millions of Real Life Athena readers) but I grew up hearing about the Land of Opportunity, all over. There was never a shortage of American underdog stories – whether in politics, school or on TV. I understood that I lived in a country where anyone could do anything if they worked hard. It’s an inspiring .. myth. A myth that is hidden extraordinarily well from far too many people, and is propped up and protected by our deeply flawed, oppressive system day in and day out.
Meritocracy; as defined by The Merriam-Webster dictionary is “ 1: a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement 2: leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria”
I think Meritocracy as an ideal, makes sense. Hard-work should be rewarded, smart, creative people should think of solutions and if everyone is offered the opportunities, the ones that take them should be rewarded. Obviously it’s not just merit if it took us 44 presidents to get a person of color in office and we have yet to see a woman there. If anyone can do anything if they work hard, shouldn’t our leaders have a bit more diversity?
It’s obvious there’s a problem if we look around and notice the racial and gendered trends amongst the upper class, politicians, tech industries and CEO’s to name a few, but we hold near and dear to this idea that we exist in a true meritocracy. (Just look at Oprah!)
If we are really living in a system that only judges the individual on their personal merit – then why do the stats keep proving that there are more success stories amongst white, upper-class men? Surely, there are exceptions to the rule but not nearly enough to throw out the idea (truth) that the non-merit factors like race, class and gender have something to do with all of this. Right? Right! They do! Yet our individualistic focus often keeps us from challenging these ideas because instead of seeing the alarming systematic racism, sexism, and classism (to name a few) that surrounds us, we are fed more “if I can do it – anyone can!” testimonials and stronger than fear that we won’t make it, is the hope that we will. The exceptions to the rule, keep our hopes high and serve as ‘proof’ that it is possible, to make it and again puts the blame on the individual rather than the system. The internalization of a flawed system allows the hierarchy to keep going unchallenged. Thus, the faux meritocracy stays put as well as our systematic oppression.
In the end, Meritocracy is a crock of shit, and it’s message is damaging to all people because it’s not true and it negates to mention that we are living in a society that is systematically racist, sexist and classist, while masking it’s oppressive nature with an individual blaming ideal that is Meritocracy, instead of the acknowledgment of a shitty system and the resources to change it now, together.
This pretty much sums it up more eloquently, “A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate — these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.” – Ben Bernanke

**Note. Ben Bernanke is an American Economist, he held two terms as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and was Professor at Princeton. **

If you want to read more check out Stephen J McNamee’s, The Meritocracy Myth


Rhetoric is one of the most effective ways in which the disempowerment of women is perpetuated in our society. In particular, phrases linked to femininity that are intended to be insulting are hugely damaging. This video by the Always campaign captures this phenomenon perfectly.


Random Acts of Sexism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what specific incidents have led me to become a feminist and I really think I can attribute that to something I’d like to call “everyday sexism”. These acts are seemingly small but have long lasting impacts of the morale of a woman… I’m literally recalling incidents from over 10 years ago. One of the major issues that I’ve had is with my body; it has been over sexualized, criticized, hated, and loved. I’ve literally had people just come up to me and touch my butt because they “couldn’t resist.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This is my body and if you want to touch it you need permission, objectifying me? NOT SEXY. Getting my consent? SEXY. Some of my girlfriends with larger chests have say strangers (men AND women) literally walk up to them at the bar and poke their boobs, like it’s a toy that can be played with – it’s frustrating!


But it’s acts that are even smaller than that:


It’s calling a girl that speaks her mind a bitch.


It’s calling a woman that has multiple partners a slut.


It’s honking at woman when you drive by – but actually though, can y’all not?


It’s blaming receiving unwanted attention on the clothes a woman is wearing.


It’s making a joke that makes fun of women.


It’s accusing an emotional woman of being on her period.


It’s when a dude buys you a drink and automatically feels some claim to your body.


It’s a guy friend who hates you for constantly putting them in the “friend zone.”


It’s a partner who doesn’t even think to ask if you WANT to have sex for the simple reason you’re in a relationship.


It’s not being able to twerk with your pals without some dude trying to push up on you at a dance party.


It’s feeling guilty because you said, “No.”


It’s laughing even though that joke about women not knowing how to drive just isn’t f*cking funny.


It’s body shaming.

It’s any and everything that has made you question your worth as woman or even a person in this world.



All of these things just perpetuate this hate of women that I feel is so unintentional it makes my heart hurt. But I really feel with conscious mind and heart, these obstacles can be obliterated.


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You’re A Hypocrite, I’m A Hypocrite, We’re All Hypocrites


When we think of the word “hypocrite”, our minds automatically go negative. I would like to challenge that.

I am being a hypocrite as I write this because I have definitely called folks hypocrites in a negative light in the past. The point of this article is not that people should have no values and show no principle; my point is that the possibility of hypocrisy should not prevent us from speaking out or evolving in different ways.

The first time I began to think about hypocrisy in a more nuanced manner was regarding the Orthodox Jewish Community. I found myself calling various individuals in this community hypocrites; some of this had to do with treatment I had experienced regarding gender, my status as a non-Orthodox Jew and other disagreements I saw as value-based. Orthodox Jews are extremely visible in their values and therefore it is easier to see hypocrisy. We see their values in their following of Halakha (Jewish law) and often in the way individuals dress. This led me to a realization that those who put their beliefs and values out there in a very public way will always be hypocrites.

We live in a complicated world. Chances are you are pulled several different directions each and every day. And chances are every day you do not react the same way. Sometimes I call out the racist comment I overhear, other times I might not. Should I always say something? Probably, but the fact that I might not every single time does not automatically discredit when I do speak up.

When we get so caught up in the consistencies of our actions, it can be debilitating. We are not perfect; we are evolving creatures. This idea that we are 100% authentic everyday is ludicrous. I do not think the exact same way today as I did a week ago, maybe even an hour ago.

None of this is to say we are not accountable for our actions and should not act on principle. Hell, I will continue to get mad when I see dudes call themselves feminists and then exert extremely sexist behavior. The hypocrisy of this is infuriating.

It is inevitable though that we will be hypocrites in our life.

Human characteristics that I admire most are courage and the willingness to place oneself in an uncomfortable situation. This means individuals who share their opinions in public spaces and doing so is a risk. People are going to remember a bold statement; they are going to remember when someone pushes back. And eventually, that person expressing their opinion is probably going to do something that slightly disagrees or is perceived as being inconsistent with the sentiment that was just put forward.

In regards to feminism, when an exact definition of feminism is explained as THE definition, it can lead to a bit of policing. You are a feminist if you do “x” but NOT if you do “y.” Let’s not do that. If someone is bashing women for having sex, yeah I would argue that this is anti-feminist but if a woman is out at a bar and she moves her hips to a song that is less than respectful to women, there should not be a feminist secret camera watching this individual and monitoring their behavior for hypocrisy. And when I say camera, I mean that figuratively. Guilt can eat inside us if we feel that we are not perfectly aligning with our political beliefs. When we live in a world that is so incredibly unjust, we have to participate in it at times. I call myself anti-capitalist but I still need to make money and pay rent. There is a balance between living out our beliefs and also recognizing that our actions are at times going to be inconsistent with those beliefs.

My advice. Be principled but also know that you will be a hypocrite because that is what living looks like, especially when you are willing to take a risk in a public manner and be a leader.


Written by Sarah Brammer-Shlay 

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# YesAllWomen

# Push

# Defend

# Forward

# Open


# Anger

# Depression

# Together

# Alone

# Global

# Progressiondoesnotalwayslooklikeprogress

# Movement

# Pushingdoesnotalwaysmeanwalkinganewdirection

# seeothers

# seeyourself

Written by Sarah Brammer-Shlay

Redefining Hero: Cheree

Cheree O’Shields is a registered nurse who works at Kateri Residence, a program of St. Stephen’s Human Services that serves Native American women and children. She has worked as a nurse and advocate for homeless youth in the Twin Cities since 2005. She is currently working on her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree in Public Health Nursing and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

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My Incompetence as a Farmer and Why I Blame Patriarchy

Okay, so some of you may think this is a stretch, but lemme give it a shot.

Here’s where I’ve thus proven myself incompetent on the farm (I’m interning on an 150-member organic Community Supported Agriculture farm; I’ve been here a month):

I lack hand and arm and core muscle.

I’m not drill savvy – I needed to get a screw into purling (for a hoop house we’re putting together) and I couldn’t tell forwards from backwards in terms of which way the screw was moving. I just struggled for a while and then assumed I didn’t have the arm strength to do it.

I didn’t know that for tractors and stick shift cars, you have to park them in a gear or they roll backwards. I failed at parking the tractor in the proper spot, after multiple tries, and I later almost caused the car to roll into a pond (I was able to save it with 2 meters to spare; it did take out the horse fence).

I didn’t and don’t know what to listen to in terms of an engine (i.e. how to tell when you’ve given it enough throttle).

I didn’t know how to hitch a trailer or a tractor accessory.

I can’t back up a trailer.

I am not very good at starting a fire.

I don’t know to look for plastic on or near a wood burning stove before lighting a fire. I just end up with a pool of melted plastic and a house full of fumes.

Here’s why I think some of these incompetencies wouldn’t exist if patriarchy weren’t shedding it’s lovely shadow over our existence: 

I didn’t have a dad around for much of my life to show me how to use tools. When he was around, tools weren’t something he could afford to buy, and there wasn’t the time or money to do things like camp or hunt. My mom, while quite skillful in a lot of areas, doesn’t usually fix things herself. It might be a lack of time, as she works a lot (blame other structures for that, such as academia and capitalism and the nonprofit industrial complex), but it could also be that her dad passed his fix it skills onto the boys in the family – all my mom’s brothers are pretty savvy – and not the girls. Similarly, my mom’s brother and other men in our lives who were handy didn’t pass their skills onto me. Sure, they tickled and teased me (and there was the time that our tree trimmer friend put me in the harness and let me go up into the elm, and he gave my barbie the name Tree Trimmer Barbie) but even when I got to go fishing, they didn’t put a hook on my line! And I’m convinced it was not because I was 3, but because I was a girl raised by a single mother and an immigrant dad.

Maybe this is a stretch.

The point is, I feel incompetent out here on the farm. I guess that’s what you get with a city girl goes to western Wisconsin. It is quite possible that programs such as Boy Scouts prepare guys for country living a little more than what’s available for girls. And men are told to train their bodies, be tough – women aren’t. Men are supposed to be the handy ones, so I’m guessing they’re more likely to seek out or, through social pressure, be exposed to tools and machines and mechanical skills. Leaving me in the dust.

The farmer I work for is a single woman and she is often defending her know how and her ability to do things herself – whether it’s carrying a heavy load, trouble shooting the new sand point well, or getting the water feature working on her antique transplanter. She tells stories of always being the minority, and perceiving certain attitudes when at a meeting or buying supplies. I am interested in interviewing her about her experience as a single woman farmer in rural Wisconsin. If anyone has interview question suggestions, please post them in the comments. 


I can, at least, bottle feed the calves.

Ideally, I would have done some research for this post to back up some of my claims about male handiness being socially constructed, but life on the farm means I need to be rushing outside right now. Wish us luck transplanting today!

Written by Magdalena Kaluza

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Don’t Worry About the Rest: ReThinking Heroism


Thor: The Dark World 2013

Since before written language, humans have been basking in the residual glory of the hero archetype. The hero model of storytelling has been used across cultures from Greek mythology, to Roman kings, to religious characters depicted in Christianity.
Although the standard hero has evolved quite a bit over time, the core elements are still intact. A hero is self-sacrificing, 100% independent and courageous in the face of adversity. He, yes he, is predisposed to rescue the morally (and often physically) inferior (either a woman or common folk) and the less fortunate.
Nowadays, heroism appears to be a bit more removed from our world and reserved only for fantasy genre books or films. Prime examples are pictured: Thor and the Greek God, Hercules, if you’re into Disney. In reality, the hero worldview is just as culturally ingrained as it was 3000+ years ago.
Heros of recent history may not be as glamorous as kings or gods, but in many ways we still treat them as such. We use the same Imagestorytelling technique in high school history class as ancient kings used to selectively glorify and filter their legacy. They are framed as objective recounts, yet are both intentionally and subconsciously restricted.
One common example is Abraham Lincoln, the designated face of the Civil War. Particularly in grade school, a huge emphasis is placed on his moral righteousness (Honest Abe) and the abolishment of slavery is portrayed as solely his valiant act of joostice – involuntary reference sorry – as if others we’re joost watching from the bleachers. And of course everyone couldn’t be fully credited. The point is that we tend to choose a single man to mark the event and promote him to no end while skimming over the unpleasant details.
The consequences of hero-centered storytelling are particularly evident in the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The traditional story is inaccurate for a number of reasons and not surprisingly is framed around the memorable, but limited hero model.
I don’t doubt that Ms. Parks was daring, ruthlessly moral and whatever else makes a hero; still, it doesn’t mean that she was not part of an existing network and plan. The inverse of a hero is the community, which has been all but screened out of history.

Sure they can…as long as there are other around to help out

The famous bus incident is portrayed as the first even though others, herself included, had already refused to give up their seats in the past. Likewise, those who made her training possible, prepared her for that moment, were already organizing in the community and setting the essential groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement are referred to as bandwagon supporters, if mentioned at all.

So, why does this matter? Omitting the social context from the story undermines the role of the black community along with the reason the act was ultimately successful. After all, it would be too risky for those in power to publicize the actions that actually lead to social change and shifts in power. Instead, students know Ms.Parks as a admirable, but unrelatable, special case who by sheer luck landed in the perfect circumstances.
As Herbert Spencer put it “You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown….Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”
In reality, social change takes careful planning, strategy, and a citizens that are not waiting around for a hero to save them. Rosa Parks was a key player in inciting the Civil Rights Movement, however we should not forget the rest. Not that we shouldn’t a quality hero conquest as needed – as long as it’s on Netflix instead of in our history textbooks.


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April Poetry Challenge–RLA Style

With April being poetry month, I thought it would be a perfect time for an RLA poetry post.  This past April, for the first time ever, I participated in the Poetry Month Challenge with a few poetic friends. The basis of the challenge is to write one poem every day for the entire month. I selected a few of my own and asked friends to contribute. The poems posted below were all written as part of this past April’s Poetry Month Challenge. They have been collected from multiple women, none have titles, and they have all been submitted anonymously. Enjoy!


I’m still waiting for it to begin.
Trying to find the anger within.
Grin and all, walking in.
A shine that follows.
Unwilling, he took that from you.
Leaving you with darkness.
Lost, trying to find the way back. 
To the day you felt comfortable in your own skin.
To the day you no longer have to lock every door behind you.
To the day you are no longer scared to live in your own house,
and able to leave your door open. 
Letting that shine that follows return again. 


Red heart beating life through my body
Orange sun reflecting in my eyes and staining my cheeks
Yellow sandy blond hair falling every which way but straight
Green grass stains are playful memories sweeping across worn jeans
Blue veins carrying precious life through delicate lines
Indigo mind taking in the fragrance of smiles passing by
Purple bruises lingering on olive skin building a tolerance for life
Coloring me in


Beautiful brown wrinkled skin
Aged with the wisdom of the world
Brave enough to be bold
Humble enough to still learn
Decades contained in her watering eyes
Mama Taejah is my new Superwoman


My vagina has a story too
It hasn’t told many
Because it gets confused
Labels get confused
Experiences are confusing
So it keeps its secrets

It has felt shame
Like a heart sprawled open
It wanted compassion
But it felt embarrassment
It has been broken
So it developed its own defense mechanisms 
It caved in like sand walls 
collapsing on a weak foundation
It signed contracts with the devil
It paid for that
It blamed itself 
It hurt 
It left
It feared 
It built up walls upon walls
To keep out the past
It cried until it couldn’t
It has felt and felt
It wanted to stop
But it still felt

But it has grown
It has learned to love itself in a way that nobody ever taught it to
Like a heart sprawled wide open
Giving and giving
Learning to accept
It has been shown love and that made all the difference
It needed to be pushed
To discover what it had not yet discovered on its own 
Now it is learning 
Learning independence 
Learning to trust
Learning empowerment

It still fears 
that is a scar that may never fade
But it loves
And it waits
And it says what it means
Because it is learning self-worth
And it is finally starting to share its story


I looked down at my feet, 
admiring my new black leather sandals 
Admiring the fact that I got them for a deal second hand
My skin an olive dark tan 
My toes painted a deep red
I look down at my feet
and realize that they mirror my mother’s
Then I remember the olive tan woman who taught me to thrift shop

I pick through the garden weeds
The dirt under my nails and on my knees
The sun beating on my bare shoulders
I smile as I remind myself how lucky I am to have this place
To have the time, the tools, and the earth
To be gaining all this knowledge

I imagine myself older with a magnificent and crazy garden taking over my yard
A serene and tasty place 
A place to get away
A place to spend all my free days
Then I realize that this image is in fact the image of my mother
The woman who introduced me to dirt as a child
Who spent hours upon hours planting with me every summer

No wonder I’ve grown up to be just like her


She wears masculine clothing,
Predominately dates women
She identifies as female
I think she is beautiful

But there are places she wont go
Cruelty paves the streets on certain parts of town
She has grown accustom to dodging words that shoot at her like knives
The strangers who tell her “you need some dick in your life”
or boldly refer to her as a man with disgust in their eyes
But her ears are shields and she calmly deflects their words
Harassment has become a normalized part of her life
and she doesn’t want to step on a soap box every night
She shouldn’t have to

I might be lucky
Because my identity feels like it lies dormant ‘cause you can’t see it
Like a secret that I can keep if I need to
I don’t fear discrimination at job interviews
I do not get harassed on the streets
Well, at least not because of my dating preference
Nobody tells me that I need some dick in my life
I have the privilege of choosing when I want to out myself
I can pass as a heterosexual woman anywhere at any time
I can hide 
behind shields of feminine clothing, make up, and long hair
Sometimes out of convenience
Sometimes out of fear 

But events still occur that force me to become acutely aware of who I am
Confront it even
Some joyful and some difficult
But either way, these events make me who I am

Family Christmas reminds me every year what closeted feels like
I hide from this family out of fear
Because I count on them to love me and to be proud of me
So instead of share, I endure the questions every year 
They want to know which man I am dating now
I curl into myself as they describe the sexy husbands they can set me up with

I am reminded of my identity when I am dancing
A standard creeper asks us if he can join
Well, dude, my relationship is not here for your pleasure… so no
But if I want to be public, my gender and my sexuality collide and become fetishized
I wonder if that is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life

Our last election was a time that filled me with so much hope and pride
Going door to door
Campaigning and debating and voting for my constitutional rights
“Vote No” plastered on stickers, t-shirts, and signs
Watching the TV screen that November as it counted the uncomfortably close race

When we won the campaign that night, tears welled up in my eyes
For this possibility that we may actually be creating a society that is more tolerant and loving and accepting
For my future 
For my friends
For my children
It was a moment I will recall to them as a mile stone in our history
And all I could feel was pride

I don’t want to hide behind shields my whole life
I shouldn’t have to
We shouldn’t have to
Events happen and feelings surface
They string together and get twisted up in how I identify
Sometimes I can hide, sometime I don’t want to, sometimes I can’t
But it always makes me who I am


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