Madeleine Albright once said, “Anybody who thinks the world would be a better place if it were run by women doesn’t remember high school.” She may have a point.
Most research into the lives of teenage girls reveals a world of alphas and betas. Women never forget on which side of the social fault line they spent their formative years, which is why many studies show that who we are in high school may determine who we become as adults. (Men, generally speaking, can’t relate. As boys, their social demarcations were less subtle — wedgies, pushing one another into lockers — and therefore likely not as lasting). In contrast, the hierarchy that women establish among themselves, and for themselves, in high school often far outlasts those four years.
In high school, the alpha girls dominate. They rule fashion, set the lexicon, and make the ironfisted judgments about who is in and who is out. The beta girls, by contrast and in as equally gross a generalization, are accomplished. They get the grades. They excel in sports. They play instruments. They run the student council. But while they are known, they are not generally revered. Science has proven these categorizations are lasting: A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that girls who were more popular in high school go on to make more money than those who were not, largely because they’re more likely to understand the “rules of the game” socially, and know how to gain acceptance and support.
As supporters rally for a possible Hillary Clinton bid for president in 2016 — though she has said, more than once, that she will not run — I think about that, the idea of high school hierarchy. I remember the power players in my own high school. I think about how far and how long we carry the social successes, or burdens, of our adolescence. And I wonder: What role will that thinking have in Clinton’s chances of becoming the first female president?
Though just four years ago, when she ran the first time, women were divided on Clinton. Now, however, the soon-to-be former Secretary of State’s popularity is sky high. She has proven herself a strong leader and advocate of women’s rights, and a key member of the political party a majority of female voters support. She places value on herself and on family, citing among her reasons for vacating the position of Secretary of State wanting to exercise, travel, and be available to the possibility of grandchildren.
But it’s not just what she’s done that has earned Clinton this seemingly newfound popularity. It’s who she is — proof that our propensity to turn to labels to categorize, and vet, one another is a hard habit to break. This year, Clinton has been called, at turns, “the coolest person on the planet” and “The James Dean of our generation.” In April, much fanfare was made after she was photographed “swilling beer and hitting the dance floor” at a Cuban bar while visiting Colombia with President Obama. Obama, in contrast, who did not go out that night, was painted — even if somewhat jokingly — as a boring stick in the mud with no friends. The Internet meme “Texts from Hillary,” which published fictional, and hilarious, texts sent from the Secretary of State, further cemented the growing obsession with Clinton’s dual personas, especially after she submitted one herself, and signed it “Hillz.” Here was a woman so many other women could either relate to or emulate: A woman who got things done — and then went and had a beer.
Why does it matter? Part of the problem with Clinton in the past has been that we have not quite been able to pinpoint what sort of girl she was, or is. Is she the alpha girl who is winning just like she always did? Or is she the beta girl who, forgetting her place, wants to walk right past the cool kids table to sit in the most powerful chair on earth? Laura Sessions Stepp, who writes extensively about adolescents and families, has introduced the idea of a third subset of girls. “Gamma girls” are smart, accomplished, funny, friendly, and so universally well liked that they transcend alpha and beta. I buy into the idea of the existence of these gamma girls, except that I don’t think the gammas are created whole. Instead, I think they came from the emotional ranks of alphas and betas, but have just repackaged themselves on the power of their intellectual and emotional intelligence.
I would say Hillary is a gamma, except for that part about being universally well liked. But she’s getting there. Like every type of girl back in high school, she has her detractors, and women are not traditionally the biggest supporters of one another, though that’s beginning to change, too. Professional women may not like her because no matter what they have accomplished, she has accomplished more. Older women, though historically among her strongest supporters, may not like her because she is too much “like a man,” willing to do what a girl’s got to do to get what she wants. Younger women might not like her because they may see her as one of the over-50, empty-nested cohort of women prone to experiencing their own private, privileged summers.
But then, of course, the beer. And the photos of her dancing the rumba at that Cartagena nightclub. Could Hillary Clinton be the ultimate gamma, after all? Could she transcend categorization?
Time will tell. But it does matter. Because even if we reinvent ourselves after high school, and then reinvent that reinvention many times over as adults, I don’t think any of us ever fully escapes the gravitational pull of our middle and high school years. The people you like now are very likely to be the same people you liked then; the same people who treated you well — and whom you treated well — are likely the same as today. Don’t believe me? Try asking your friends who Clinton reminds them of among the girls in their high school. Almost everybody has an answer. But chances are it’s different than it was even four years ago.