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Alpha GirlsReview - Alpha Girls
Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World
by Dan Kindlon
Rodale Books, 2006
Review by Denise M. Wells
Sep 11th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 37)

Alpha girls are described as the "third wave of feminism" and possibly the first generation of women who can and will "reap the benefits of women's movement"!  Kindlon describes an alpha girl as an assertive, decisive and a confident female cognizant of her life choices; a person ready to take risks and willing to "transcend the barriers of race and class." He discusses this new image in the context of the major gains women have made -- the ability to vote, to make reproductive choices and to participate in myriad athletic activities under Title IX.

Kindlon offers many arguments to support this perception. The father-daughter dyad is helping girls to be more direct, competitive and to engage in risk-taking behaviors. In the context of this relationship fathers provide their daughters the necessary role modeling of "male attitudes". As Irving Gottesman's role theory indicates, girls have choices of diverse roles to try on and assimilate. This exposure provides the daughter with innate abilities of both "animus and anima"-- Jung's terms to address the male and female components of our selves.  This "hybrid" integration provides the basis for alpha girls to be both "rational and intuitive, tender and hard-headed, and self-sacrificing and self-serving."

In a similar vein, Kindlon takes on the experts in development from Sigmund Freud, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow, Jean Baker Miller, and Erik Erickson offering new data from the Adolescent Life Survey to demonstrate that girls have no penis-envy, moral deficit, lack of voice, mom-centered psyche, male subjugation or intense identity crisis.  He identifies this psychology of emancipation as the rationale for the increase in self-esteem for girls with experiences in the family, school setting and culture. Alpha girls have an "internal locus of control." There are no mixed messages to girls, but rather significant expectations for success and challenge.

In discussing biology, Kindlon offers many studies discussing brain size, function and innate abilities between the sexes  but returns to the Anne Fausto-Sterting's assertion that the "role of discrimination and socialization dramatically affects male and female aptitude and performance." He asserts that, in fact men are experiencing more biological vulnerabilities such as stress related decreases in male birth during times of hardship and   with exposure to endocrine-disrupting pollutants such as PCBs, and dioxin.  In citing other trends, he made notes of the growing phenomenon of women in many undergraduate and graduate settings while male spouses provide childcare and nurturance.  He describes the alpha women as intense, independent and self-sufficient, and very goal-oriented in their work. In the work force, the "transformational versus transactional" work orientation have provided women with better ability to work as a team and to promote more creativity! Their work approach encourages initiative and unique problem-solving using a less authoritarian mode.  Alas what do women want?  We have it all. Or do we?

I always become very skeptical when I read that that never before have women had the ability and opportunity to do it all. In fact, in most ages there have always been women who have taken on risks and challenges and made significant differences.  I would encourage any one to read Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of  Women or peruse Barbara Miller Solomon's In the Company of Educated Women.   Another interesting group of women were the women who became in involved the Hull-House with Jane Addams as described by Peggy Glowacki and Julia Hendry in Images of America: Hull-House. In a similar vein, one should be aware of the number of  psychoanalysts who pursued  Freud's new principles and in some cases posed great challenges in his dogma. One readily recalls Helene Deutsch, Ruth Mack Brunswick, Marie Bonaparte, Melanie Klein and Karen Horney. In fact, it was Karen Horney who disagreed with Sigmund Freud about penis-envy. She must have been a confident, self-actualized "alpha girl" to take on such a challenge.

More to the point, I would encourage readers to review Martha Putallaz and Karen L. Bierman's book on aggression in girls,  Aggression, Antisocial Behavior, and Violence Among Girls. I have worked with female juvenile delinquents who make such claims as  "I was being assertive" when a young offender opted to direct her car into the telephone booth where the disrespectful girl attempted to obtain shelter. For many girls, there is a complete misunderstanding of aggression and assertion. In families that have good socioeconomic opportunities, the benefit of caring parents and the ability to attend good schools, these young girls have the familial context to become better socialized and to develop empathy. This is simply not the case in many girls' existence.

Laura Liswood talks about how alpha girls will fare in addressing anger in the work place and questions, whether these women, will have the needed "revolutionary skills" of earlier generations. It will be interesting to see how alpha girls deal with their anger in the work place.  I do believe that there will be a continuum of responses among these females, some far different than their male cohorts, but, unfortunately, some at the same primitive level of functioning that we have seen in some men.

I think that this book could provide provocative discussion in families or reading groups, but it is limited by its socioeconomic milieu. I wonder how many Midwest adolescent girls would identify themselves as alpha girls in more rural settings.

© 2007 Denise M. Wells 

Denise M. Wells trained as a psychiatric nurse, but used this training as a juvenile probation officer working predominantly with girls. Her other interests include the history of woman, the history of women psychoanalysts, and patterns of  female nurturing and mothering.


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