Girls and the 'Alpha Effect'

A few years ago a dean at Dartmouth College remarked to some friends that she was a little disappointed by the progress of coeducation at Dartmouth, an excellent and famous school but one with a long and well-earned reputation for hard-drinking fraternity boys. After Dartmouth went coed in the '70s, said the dean, she had hoped that the women would civilize the men. Instead, the opposite happened: the men made ruffians of the women.

I thought of that remark when I read an article in the January issue of Harvard magazine about Dan Kindlon, a clinical psychologist and adjunct lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health and the author of a book, "Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World" (2006). Kindlon speaks approvingly about watching his daughter Julia, a softball catcher, defending the plate against a base runner, another girl, who knocks her down. A little scraped and bruised, Julia picks herself up and feels a sense of pride. "It was a character-building experience that very few girls growing up in an earlier generation had a chance to have," says Kindlon. "People who say that girls aren't competitive and don't enjoy winning have never gone to a game and watched!"

Kindlon reports signs of the "alpha girl" psychology not just in the "mean girl" type that has long dominated the high-school cafeteria but in all girls. It's a legacy of "emancipated confidence" bequeathed by feminism over the past three or four decades—almost two generations by now. In the '80s and '90s psychologists worried about young teen girls losing their confidence, but those fears have abated as these girls have plunged into the male world as equals (and even superiors: girls are at least marginally better at the skills and work habits that get you into college these days and now count for majorities of the entering classes at law and medical schools).

Girls may be becoming "alphas," but I think Kindlon is missing something here. By becoming more aggressively confident, girls have sacrificed qualities that more boys should aspire to or seek to emulate. Along the way, an early premise of feminism has been distorted, if not turned upside down. In the early '80s Carol Gilligan, who held the first chair in gender studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, "lamented that girls in their teens compromised their authenticity to fit gender roles, thereby 'losing their voice'." Girls were more naturally into relationships and sought consensus, whereas boys prized individuality and cared about justice, Gilligan wrote. Apparently, these days the girls have become more like boys—tougher, more aggressive about asserting their individuality. But that's not what Gilligan and an earlier generation of feminists, including that Dartmouth dean, were hoping for: they wanted the boys to become more like girls, softer and kinder, if you will, but also more emotionally mature about human relationships.

I see the "alpha effect" at Princeton, where I teach a course on narrative writing. The women are strong and confident and often outperform the boys. They are as career-minded and focused as their male peers. But there are some shadows. Not a few of them seem sad about a social system that prizes the one-night hookup and downplays (and indeed has pretty well eliminated) courtship. There is probably less heedless college sex than parents fear, and we should be thankful for the confidence and toughness that many girls show. Still, it's too bad that the boys have not progressed as far as the girls. The Dartmouth dean was right: the girls could have a civilizing effect on the boys. But I don't think it will happen until the girls insist on it—that the boys treat them with more respect.