Where does alpha female come from?
Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The term began to refer to the first in a series or a group, both literally and metaphorically, since the 1300s. It was as early as the late 1870s when scientists began using the terms alpha male and alpha female to refer to the leaders of a group of animals. The term has been metaphorically applied to socially dominant men since the 1970s and similar women since at least the 1990s. In the 1990s, alpha female was mostly used with regard to women in sociological or scientific contexts. People writing about the way humans interact in communities would use alpha female as shorthand for the de facto leader in a female social hierarchy.
In the early 2000s, the phrase alpha female began to take on more cultural significance. As early as 2001, female trailblazers in their respective fields were called alpha females. In this sense, the term was a positive one, but at the same time, alpha females could also deride the catty, most popular girl in the middle-school lunchroom, say, or the bullish executive in the boardroom. The stereotypical image of an alpha female from this time puts her in a power-suit and sky-high heels, hair and makeup done, with perfect hair, confidence, and an executive-level job. During the early 2000s, it was this negative connotation of the alpha female as spiteful, intimidating, overbearing, and bossy that caught on and defined the stereotype.
Google searches for alpha female spiked in February, 2014 and April, 2015, coinciding with important moments in the career of German professional wrestler Marie Kristin Gabert, who took the stage name Alpha Female during those years.
Who uses alpha female?
Today, use of the term alpha female is complex and often comes with a double standard. It carries with it the overtones of animalistic hierarchy from which the term originated, which is traditionally not flattering to women described as alpha females. In fact, much conversation around the alpha female is about men being intimidated by her and women hating her—or being scared that she hates them.
On the other hand, many women increasingly and proudly identify as alpha females. They know what they want and are unafraid to advocate for themselves to achieve it. Alpha females are typically described as career-driven, physically attractive, and sexually empowered.
The term alpha female is often used in the context of dating. Articles and books describe the power struggle between alpha females and alpha or beta men—that is, submissive, subordinate men, which has supplied its counterpart, beta female. Dating advice focuses on what alpha females look for in relationships, how they expect to be treated, and where they can find men with whom they will be compatible. Common consensus among advice books and articles, for better or worse, seems to pair alpha females with beta men who will not get in their way.
My favorite thing that happened this weekend was this alpha female trying to heard [sic] a group of her drunk friends[...].
@DJD0zer, March, 2018
I’m for sure an Alpha female and I find it disgusting how men would rather make desperate attempts to overpower me instead of matching my wavelength and elevating. weak asses
@neontrees_, December, 2017
We’re quickly introduced to the voice on the other end of Rick’s walkie — and whaddya know, it’s Alicia Witt, who’s even tougher than the Florida-based paralegal she played on Justified. Witt plays Paula, a recovering secretary and alpha female who doesn’t blink while negotiating with Rick and couldn’t care less about bonding with her captives. The guy Carol shot in the arm calls her “babe,” but as Paula makes clear, he’s little more than a warm blanket with a penis.
Richard Rys, Vulture, March, 2016