In case you haven't been paying attention, there is a woman running for president of the United States. Can she win? Only a chimp knows for sure.

"The term alpha females originated in my field of animal behavior, but has acquired new meaning," writes Frans De Waal, psychologist, primatologist and ethologist (that's the study of animal behavior) in today's Huffington Post. These days an alpha female is loud or flirty or controlling. But De Waal notes that "the original meaning of "alpha female," however, is exactly the same as that of "alpha male": being the highest ranking member of one's sex."

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De Waal has apes who live under his office window at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, GA. Observing these chimpanzees, he found that, though we may think of "alpha" as meaning strongest and nastiest, often it means having the best connections. To wit:

Unlike males, females rarely show open rivalry over the top spot, which is decided by a combination of age and personality, both of which are non-negotiable.

One day, I watched as a small scuffle grew into something that sounded extremely serious. The chimpanzees were screaming so loudly, and the males moving so fast, that I feared a bloody ending. Suddenly all commotion stopped. The males sat down, panting heavily, while several females hung around them. The atmosphere was extremely tense, and it was clear that nothing had been settled. Then I saw who was our alpha female.

Peony, who had been resting in a corner got up, and literally all eyes turned towards her. Some youngsters approached her, some adults grunted softly the way they do to alert others, while Peony slowly and deliberately walked towards the center of the scene followed by everyone who had remained on the fringes. It looked almost like a procession, as if the queen arrived to mingle with the commoners. All that Peony did was groom one of the two males who had been central to the fight, and soon other individuals followed her example, grooming each other. The second male joined the grooming clique as well. Calm returned. It was as if no one dared to start things up again after Peony had so gently put a period behind it.

So what does this have to do with Hillary Clinton? De Waal has several primate lessons that apply to human politics.

  • 1. Age helps a female more than a male. "getting older, more experienced, and better connected offers females an advantage. Younger females arouse competition among males, which interferes with effective leadership. In human politics, too, the typical alpha female is post-reproductive: Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, etc."
  • 2. Female solidarity is the key to female leadership. "The only way to secure this support is by being sexually non-threatening, and to be perceived as a champion of female causes." Sounds a lot like Hilary Clinton. And Oprah, actually.
  • 3. An alpha female needs to be able to rise above the parties. "The effective alpha female needs to be able to reach out beyond her inner circle, build bridges, groom rivals, all of which comes harder to females than males, who lead more opportunistic political lives." De Waal adds, "The Bush years have reduced my confidence that men are so much better at it."
  • 4. "While high-status males enjoy great sex appeal, the relation between power and sex is different for females." Donatella Versace may have advised Hilary Clinton to wear dresses and skirts instead of pats, but "being attractive and feminine only gives sexual power - a flimsy basis for political power."

So in order to win, you need to be a matriarch, who cares about harmony within the colony. You gotta be older, with experience and connections (like, um, a husband who has been POTUS?) Hilary does sound like the perfect candidate, but then again, so does our Mom. And Oprah.

Alpha Females I Have Known [Huffington Post]