07-21-18 Patricia Sargeant

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Power On: The Alpha Female

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

We all have a mental image of the alpha male, right? The strong leader who looks out for his team at all costs. The top dog, the one with the most money or skill or muscles or smarts whatever represents "power" in the world he occupies.

But what makes an alpha female? That's not as quick an image as the testosterone-driven warrior cutting a swath through the enemy to preserve the tribe he (gulp) loves.

Some writers and readers think of the alpha female as a woman who's not afraid to show physical strength.
Or a woman whose mate is the leader of the pack, whether that pack is an empire or a soccer team or a multi-national corporation or a rock band.

Or a woman who brings exceptional skills to her group, whether those skills involve healing, breeding, mentoring, navigation or magic.

Remember that phrase about how well-behaved women rarely make history?

Women who challenge boundaries might be considered alpha females -- yet history is equally full of women who pushed lightly (if at all).

I came across this dichotomy when looking for a title, of all things. Naming a class on alpha MALES "from Abe to Zeus" was a piece of cake, so which A and Z names would exemplify an alpha female?

Athena, maybe...goddess of wisdom and battle. Or along those same lines, maybe Aphrodite or Artemis. But what about real-life women?


* Abigail Adams, White House's first First Lady and mother of six.

* Agatha Christie, Amy Tan and Alice Walker, making readers think.

* Agnes DeMille and Anna Pavlova, choreography and ballet stars.

* Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of an international church.

* Alexandra and Anastasia Romanov of the last Russian royal family.

* Alice Paul, a leader in the struggle for women's voting rights.

* Amelia Earhart, boldly navigating her way around the globe.

* Amy Alcott and Althea Gibson, renowned golf and tennis athletes.

* Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany since 2005.

* Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, with decades of advice columns.

* Anne Frank, whose diary inspired millions.

* Annie Oakley and Anne Bonney, gun- and sword-wielding adventurers.

* Aretha Franklin, demanding r-e-s-p-e-c-t in full voice.

* Arianna Huffington and Ariel Durant, observers of their society.

* Audrey Hepburn and Ava Gardner, legends of the silver screen.

And that's just the A's!

Looking at those names, though, some strike me as more Alpha Female than others. Yet I suspect we'd all choose different women, or different goddesses, for different reasons.

So that's my question for you, and I'd love to quote you in the class coming up next month...what traits do YOU think of when you envision an alpha female? Do you know any such women in real life? What's she (or you, if you're one yourself) like? What says "alpha female" to you?

I'm getting ready to <theme alert> celebrate <got it?> an intriguing variety of answers. And if 20+ people reply, somebody will win free registration to my October class on "The Hero's Journey, For Heroines." All kinds of fun stuff coming up!

Laurie, now in a very celebratory mood!

© 2012 Laurie Schnebly Campbell


Wendi Sotis said...

I think the most important trait of an Alpha Female would be that she draws people to her. Others might not even realize they are following her, but they are compelled to. She doesn't need a title, but one would think if she doesn't have an official title, her followers eventually will give her an informal title.

The class sounds great! I'm looking forward to it.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Wendi, I love the idea of an informal title -- you're right, that's the kind of thing that would evolve naturally for a woman like this. What a cool concept!

Judy said...

As soon as you mentioned alpha females the first person I thought of was Abigail Adams. What I'm noticing is too often women who are nasty (to be polite) are labeled alpha. I love Wendi's perspective. I think Mother Theresa fits the true Alpha Female model. She chose her own way, with courage and strength, and held true to the end.

Mimi Barbour said...

Hi Laurie,I love your blogs! Always so interesting...

I know this might seem trite compared to some of the great ladies in history, but I first thought of my mom who could get anyone back into line if they crossed over. She nagged and yelled and did everything all mothers in her time did, but there was something she had that was different...maybe it was that everyone loves and respects her. Can this be the traits of an alpha female? Just not a famous one??
xo Mimi

Janet said...

The first person I thought of was Captain Janeway and then Seven of Nine. (I love Star Trek Voyager) Both these women have their vulnerable side which makes them very appealing. I suppose Margaret Thatcher was an alpha too but she came over as strident. I think the hint of vulnerability is essential for us to like them as fictional heroines. I don't like them frightening.(ie The Borg Queen.)

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Oh, no, my responses didn't post! Here they come again, starting with Judy:

SO true about how people sometimes say "alpha" but mean "downright witchy," which can give alpha females a bad name. Sure, some of them DO slam doors or slam things on the table to make a point, but that's not the only way of showing leadership -- it's just one way. Some alphas are flexible enough to adjust their style to whatever the situation requires, while others are lucky enough to never NEED to.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Mimi, good point about how women don't need to be famous in order to be an alpha. And the respect is essential, while the love is a nice bonus...an alpha female doesn't HAVE to be loved in order to protect her people, but she sure needs to be respected.

Not just as a courtesy, but for whatever specific power she brings to the situation -- which, in your mom's case, sounds like it came in very handy!

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Janet, I wish I'd seen Seven of Nine, but you're sure right about Captain Janeway! And it's interesting that in all the alpha-female research I did, there were so many different opinions on Margaret Thatcher -- possibly because it's easier to form a firsthand impression of her than of, say, Cleopatra or Elizabeth I. Either way, you're right about the importance of vulnerability...not only because it makes these heroines easier to identify with, but also because it provides some extra conflict in the story.

Judith Ashley said...

Hi Laurie,

The concept of an "Alpha Female" is intriguing to me because the covers of many romance novels have the bare chested, six-pack abs, testosterone oozing male on the cover - The Alpha Male. So what does an Alpha Female even look like? Doubt she's on the cover bare chested (lol).

I think it may be easier to portray the physicality of an Alpha Female in a paranormal or sci fi story because we don't have a stereotype.

When I look at your "A" list of women, one thing struck me. They all are so different...physically, mentally, emotionally (at least what we know of them). What do they have in common? In some way the touched the lives of the people around them in a profound way.

Nancy Crampton-Brophy said...

Laurie - Good post - good to hear your words of wisdom again. I think all women have it in them to be the alpha female, but I think they do it in less-obvious ways. Probably the best example of this I can think of is the mother in "My big fat Greek Wedding" when she instructs her daughter - the husband is the head of the family but the wife is the neck and she can turn the head anyway she wants. Power is not always direct or obvious.

Naomi Baltuck said...

I don't think whether a woman's leadership style is strident or affable has anything to do with her being an alpha, so long as people respect and follow her. Hilary Clinton is alpha, and has made huge strides and set an example of a strong and intelligent woman in a position of leadership. People who don't share her politics might disagree, but there is also a tendency for people--even women--to prefer women who are nicey nice.

Building on Janet's reference to Star Trek, Seven of Nine is brilliant, but she is not really a leader. She is a pusher and shover, and a learner, but not really a leader--not yet, anyway. Captain Janeway leads by example whenever possible, but she isn't afraid to pull rank when necessary, to get the job done. She is sometimes vulnerable, which we can all relate to, but I wouldn't consider it a prerequisite.

Romance readers definitely want to see the vulnerability of their alpha heroines, as strong as they are. I think it is because we all want to be strong, but we all have fears, weaknesses, insecurities, and our vulnerable human alpha heroine shows us that we can be strong, in spite of our human weaknesses and frailties.

Great post, by the way, with interesting questions posed.

Diana Mcc. said...

Susan B. Anthony is one of my all time favorite Alpha Females. She never gave up in her fight for women's right to vote. She was the first person arrested, fined and put in jail for voting in the election of 1872. Still she persevered in the fight for women's rights for another 34 years. The 19th amendment was passed 14 years after her death. So in answer to your question: An Alpha Female, IMO, would have the respect of a segment of the population, would persevere no matter how hard or inconvenient, and be true to herself. Great post!

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Judith, I like your observation of how all those women touched people around them in a profound way -- that's a great alpha characteristic, for females AND males.

Come to think of it, we could probably make a list for either gender starting with any letter, and discover that same thing...which would be an entertaining diversion on some trip where the reading materials give out too soon!

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Nancy, that's a fabulous quote from the Greek mother! And spot-on; power doesn't HAVE to be direct or obvious, although by the same token it CAN be right out there in your face.

Now I'm envisioning a face-off between two alpha females, one of whom uses power directly and the other indirectly. Fascinating premise...

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Naomi, you're right about how most of us DO have those vulnerabilities somewhere, whether or not we reveal them to the public at large...and that makes it all the more satisfying to see a heroine who deals with the same thing actually overcome it.

Which ties right into Debra Dixon's definition of popular fiction as something that gives the reader hope. I still love that one.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Diana, those three qualities of an alpha female are right on target -- it's hard to imagine a woman who lacked any of them (at least for very long) emerging as an alpha.

And even though respect of followers doesn't necessarily lead to fame, as in the case of mothers throughout the years, that never-say-die quality and integrity are absolute Musts...which is why it's so good to challenge them in a heroine's story.

Katt said...

Great topic! I've made a list of characteristics that IMHO fit into a description of alpha females

-have needs, but are never needy.
-can take control of any situation, but don't have to.
-can lead, or follow.
-can find a way to implement her ideas without offending most people.
-can win the respect of her peers without distancing herself from them.
-can shed a tear when warranted and suck it up when it's not.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Katt, how cool to see the traits all lined up like that...and now you've got me wondering what we'd call someone who showed the opposite of each one. Probably somebody I wouldn't want to spend much time with. :)

Although we probably all miss the boat on SOME of those qualities, every once in a while, this list has me wishing every woman in the world were an alpha female.

Anonymous said...

Jodi Picoult's book "Lone Wolf" said only one female in a wolf pack, the alpha, may breed. All the males want to help her train the pups. With human alpha females, breeding seems less important. It's difficult to raise children while leading troops into battle.

Thanks for an interesting topic.


Shelley Coriell said...

Great topic, Laurie! I just brainstormed a top ten list of "Strong, Outspoken Young Heroines" for my UK publicist since my current release deals with a teen girl who isn't afraid to say what's on her mind. I think a woman's ability to speak her truth is a mark of strength and a trait I personally admire. For the record, my top ten list of strong literary heroines not afraid to speak their mind included gems like Jo March from Little Women and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Celia, it's always interesting looking at the differences (if any) between alpha wolves and humans -- seems like if we got the term from animal packs, the similarities ought to (but doesn't always) carry over.

And I'd love to meet a woman who could raise children while leading troops into battle! Ripley in Alien might come closest, but far more often it comes down to an either/or scenario. Although that might be why the wolves designate who looks out for the pups...

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Shelley, what fun looking at YOUNG women who aren't afraid to speak their minds...it's interesting to look at the contrast between Jo and Hermione as an illustration of what a huge difference the setting makes.

And that's an interesting question for every alpha female: did she start out strong, or did she grow into her power as she aged? Looks like we could make a case either way!

Linda Lovely said...

I think one Alpha female characteristic is that she doesn't NEED a man to feel complete and fulfilled, yet she is completely comfortable in welcoming a man as an equal partner.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Linda, that's a great observation -- a truly strong alpha is willing to share power with an equal. Although there can be all kinds of turmoil in determining whether someone really IS an equal, rather than a competitor or a dependent who'll distract the alpha from the mission at hand.

And a woman who's been disappointed by previous (supposedly) Equal Partners probably won't believe such a thing is truly possible...which might explain why so many alpha females in history have remained single.

Judith Ashley said...


Do you see there being one set of traits that are 'alpha' regardless of gender? or do you see differences because of gender?

Judith Ashley said...

I do see women (and men) grow and surprize themselves and others by becoming a respected leader. For example: I've seen women in abusive situations make the clear decision to stand up for themselves when the abuser turns on her children. At one point she never thought she could/would be able to stand strong, to call the police, to get a restraining order, to move out - whatever it took to protect her children and herself.

Sometimes life's situations bring us to a crossroads and we do act in a way where we are seen as leaders, where we are respected, where we shine a light into the darkness for others to follow.

Do those scenarios fit with your concept of The Alpha Female?

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Judith, you're doing a great job of identifying all the issues we'll cover in the Alpha Female class! (I forget if I gave the link for it over at WriterUniv.com ?)

Quick answer for each -- yes, there are some alpha traits common to both genders. (The most fundamental being that this person is EXCEPTIONALLY good at what they do.)

And yes, a woman who gets out of a bad situation might conceivably become/remain an alpha...but it also might be a one-time response to that particular situation rather than a lifelong way of being. Whew!

Barbara White Daille said...

Hi, Laurie - great post, as usual.

For me, an Alpha heroine is one who has the courage of her

convictions, follows through on them, and does so to help people

other than herself.

Barbara White Daille said...

P.S. Apologies for the weird formatting--Blogger didn't play nice today.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Barbara, I love your definition of an alpha heroine -- that would let almost every woman in the world be an alpha at some point, if not daily, and who's to say we CAN'T all do that?

Talk about a sense of empowerment...I can almost hear the music coming up. :)

Adite Banerjie said...

Hi Laurie. Thanks for a thought-provoking blogpost. Alpha Females, according to me have the strength of their conviction. They are iconoclasts, can be expected to do things that society wouldn't expect of a female. Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi - a historic figure in pre-independence India - are two Alpha Females that come to my mind.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Adite, the idea of doing things that society wouldn't expect of a female is one reason alphas need to be especially strong. Everyone understands a mother fighting to protect her baby, but fighting for other things -- like social justice -- isn't always as readily accepted.

And it's cool seeing a alpha female examples from beyond the usual venues...now you've got me wanting to read up on Rani Laxmibai!

Rolynn Anderson said...

Great topic Laurie. Truth is, I don't know many women (in real life) who meet my ideal of the bright, outspoken, high-minded women who represent my high bar. We write about and read about such women so we can better visualize their qualities and emulate them in some small way. In real life, we take pride in our brief alpha moments...but in general, we are truly works in progress. Rolynn

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Rolynn, good call on us all being works in progress...heck, even the most bright, outspoken, high-minded women are probably in that same boat!

And it's interesting how the heroines held up for readers to emulate have changed over the years. Some from the 19th century are STILL classic alphas, whereas others wouldn't have any hope of such a possibility. Hmm...

Naomi Phillips said...

Laurie, is the alpha females class you mentioned next month or in October? I'm confused by the different titles.

I always think of the first Queen Elizabeth as an alpha female. She said "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king, and a king of England, too."

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Naomi, it IS confusing -- I'm sorry about that! June's class is "The Alpha Female, From Angelina to Zenobia" (oops, I'll bet I never mentioned that title) and it focuses on, yep, alpha females.

October's is "The Hero's Journey, For Heroines" and it takes the Christopher Vogler/Joseph Campbell concept as relates to characters whose journey is more about internal growth than external adventure. So, two different topics...but since they're each being taught on the same site, you can get the full scoop at WriterUniv.dot.com

Barbara White Daille said...

<< Barbara, I love your definition of an alpha heroine -- that would let almost every woman in the world be an alpha at some point, if not daily, and who's to say we CAN'T all do that?

So true, Laurie!

I also think it's why so many of us like to read romances. But I'll speak for myself. Often the heroines are like me--EVERYWOMAN--but when they rise to their challenges (follow through on their convictions) and win, it makes me feel I can, too.

Robin Kramme said...

Laurie...What a Great blog. It only emphasizes to me the many differences between men and woman and how society defines leadership. We look at who is leading the "pack" when we think of alphas yet in so many circumstances not only is someone required to be in charge, but leadership can be more fluid as circumstances demand. I think women are great at this, passing the baton or sharing the work load. It is not unlike a flock of geese where the lead bird changes over a long journey. While I love heroes and heroines I can root for, they don't have to be the quarterback or the CEO to gain my interest and enthusiasm.

ElaineCharton said...

Hi Laurie!
Wonderful insights, as always. When you mention Alpha Female I think of women who know what they want, or what they have to do and they do it.
Good example is my m-i-l.Her parents, Russian Immigrants did not want her to go to college. They were afraid no one would marry her! This was late 40's early 50's. But she went after what she wanted and then some.
She got a BS and an MS in Chemistry as well as a Masters in Library Science. Oh yea, her husband was the TA in her Chem Class and they went on to publish several papers together.

Paty Jager said...

To me an alpha female is someone who knows who she is and is willing to fight for what she believes in, whether it's her children's rights at school or a million dollar deal or political issue or the right to wield a wrench. To me power isn't physical or wealth- it's knowledge and how you use it.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Oh, wow, I wish I'd thought to check posts yesterday -- thanks to Robin, Elaine and Paty for some very good thoughts on the alpha female!

Passing the leadership baton / sharing work / knowing what she wants & who she is / going all-out for her beliefs...those are fabulous traits, whether in real-life women or heroines. And when they pay off with a happy ending, so much the better. :)

Sarah Raplee said...

One of the traits of an alpha woman (or man) I didn't see mentioned is the ability to make tough decisions and then deal with the consequences, knowing the outcome may produce additional problems to solve. Another is a huge sense of responsibility - at least among any alphas I'd care to hang out with!

Linda's comment about not needing a man in her life to feel whole was spot-on, as were the many people who mentioned upholding her convictions. I'd add to that a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. The 19th-century Baha'i martyr Tahireh gave up her husband and son for her beliefs and ultimately paid with her life for refusing to wear a veil in Persia as a symbol of the equality of men and women.

Great, great post!

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Sarah, I like "responsibility" as a fundamental alpha trait -- it's hard to imagine anyone who could sustain that role without it!

And that's what leads these heroines to sacrifice for the greater good...although, wow, I'd sure have to make the kind of decisions Tahireh did.

Vonnie Alto said...

I'm chiming in late. What an interesting topic! An Alpha Female is fearless and strong. She's not easily frightened. She goes after what she wants. She faces challenges head on. She'll lead the way if necessary. She's strong both physically and emotionally. She's courageous and intelligent. She's someone to look up to but formidable if opposed. Probably, the only right hero for her is an Alpha Male to match her spirit.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Vonnie, it's intriguing to think about alpha heroines with and without heroes...does having an alpha-male partner make an alpha female stronger or weaker?

There are cases to make on both sides, and a lot depends on what kind of book she's starring in. Certainly if it's a romance that needs a happily-ever-after ending, we want to see her with the perfect man by the final chapter!