A but sits at the table with


A pope, the harrower of hell, a concubine-turned-Buddhist nun and a
business woman meet at a restaurant… In Caryl Churchill’s renowned stage play Top Girls, women unapologetically take
the centre stage.1
It is a piece of on-going relevance, encompassing contemporary feminist issues
and politics, while asking pressing questions about work, class, and gender. Is
it more important to seek individual success and fulfilment, or to meet the
expectations of family and community? And are women more likely to answer this
question a certain way? This essay will discuss how Top Girls raises and resolves more questions about women in the
workplace, issues within feminism regarding the subject of work, and what it
means to be successful as a woman.

The opening sequence in Top
Girls is set in a restaurant, where Marlene celebrates her recent promotion
to managing director at the Top Girls employment agency. She is a typical
career women in the 1980s, but sits at the table with several women from
history, who achieved extraordinary things. The women include Pope Joan; 19th
century writer and world traveller Isabella Bird; Lady Nijo; Patient Griselda and
Dull Gret, the subject of the Brueghel painting of the same name. At first,
these women seem to have little in common, but what unites them is their shared
experience of suffering under patriarchal oppression. They start discussing life,
love and religion, along with their different opinions on what is constituting
success. However, while attempting to honour a contemporary woman’s success,
they struggle to do so as a community and end up discussing individual

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When analysing Top
Girls against the backdrop of the political and social events of the early
1980s, it becomes clear that the play is a direct response to the election of
Margaret Thatcher as the first female Prime Minister.2
While some saw it as a vindictive for women, her emphasis on capitalist success
over community effort and group gain worried many within the working-class. The
title of the play is also a critical stance on “top girls” such as Marlene and Thatcher.

Marlene is portrayed as being cold, ambitious and driven and admires the Iron
Lady (“No more slop … And who’s got to drive it on? First woman prime
minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on. … Certainly gets my vote” p.84). In the
second and third act, it is revealed that in order to achieve this implied “singularity”
at the top, she gave over the responsibility of raising her daughter to her
sister. Instead of being grateful, she rejects and loathes her working-class
background and hides it in order to excel. Instead of using her position to
help other women succeed, she reinforces gender oppression, obtaining her
position of power and viewing everyone, male or female, as competition. In act
two, scene one, she interviews a woman called Jeanine in order to find a
suitable job for her. As Jeanine is newly engaged, Marlene assumes she will
have children and proceeds to offer her low-level local jobs, even though
Jeanine expresses the wish to travel. Marlene repeatedly states that she is putting
her reputation on the line by giving her a recommendation, so Jeanine settles
for a job at a lampshade company (pp. 30-33).

Churchill wrote Top
Girls at a time where the various branches of second-wave feminism were at
a crucial point. They were loosely divided into three different variations, radical,
socialist and bourgeois, with bourgeois and radical feminism focusing on the
individual. The difference between the two is that the latter seeks total
independence from dominant patriarchal society and emphasises feminine superiority,
while bourgeois feminists seek integration into and equality within existing
societal structures, erasing differences between the genders (Tycer, pp.15-16).

Marlene can be seen as a symbol for the bourgeois feminist (“I believe in the
individual. Look at me”; p.84), while her sister emblematises socialist
feminism, expressing her concern and anger about Thatcher being Prime Minister
in act three: “What good’s first women if it’s her?”.

In recent discourse, the issue of Trickle-Down Feminism is
widely discussed.  In a 2013 article, Sarah
Jaffe explains that “while we debate the travails of the world’s most privileged
women, most women are up against the wall”.3
Jaffe goes on to argue that the sectors of work where most women are employed –
as domestic workers, nurses, and in other caregiving roles- are continuously undervalued,
unregulated and even dangerous: “Women may be overrepresented in the growing sectors of the economy, but
those sectors pay poverty wages”. This generates a continuous circle of oppressing
women economically and therefore, socially. Materialist feminism repeatedly emphasises
the crucial roles class and history play in the oppression of women, and that
not all women are “sisters” fighting for the same cause, but that, on the
contrary, privileged women actually oppress the working class. In her essay “Age,
Race, Class, Sex”, Audre Lorde that in a capitalist society, profit will always
be valued above human need, and it follows that “there must always be a group
of people who, through systemised oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to
occupy the place of the dehumanised inferior”.4 In
Top Girls, this place is taken by
Joyce and Angie a working-class mother and a low-achieving teenage girl without

The third act of Top Girls is a direct allusion to the
abovementioned problem.  The two sisters
argue about the socioeconomic position they find themselves in. Literally and metaphorically, Joyce is suffering
for the individual success of Marlene in more than one way. She takes on a “typically
female” occupation, working four cleaning jobs to make ends meet. Furthermore, Joyce
raised her sister’s daughter and relinquished having children of her own in the
process (albeit unknowingly): “Listen when Angie was six months old I did get
pregnant and I lost it because I was so tired looking after your fucking baby/
because she cried so much …” (p.81). As the audience learns in act two, scene
one, the relationship between Joyce and Angie is quite loveless and cold.

Ironically, Angie idolises Marlene, and her glamourous lifestyle. She, in
return, is cruel when talking about her own daughter (“She’s a bit thick. A bit
funny”, p.66), deeming her lack of prospects to be self-inflicted.

When talking about class, Marlene
expresses her hatred of her working-class provenance, insulting Joyce in the
process. Joyce, in return, states that she is not recognising Marlene as a “sister”
in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Here, class difference leads to
complete estrangement, and Joyce distinguishes between “them”, the middle class”
and “us”, working-class. The play encourages a re-examination
of feminist priorities by recognizing these differences between the women.

However, class is not the only “problem”
Churchill explores in regards to work and gender. It becomes clear that factors
like age, class and gender (and many more) intersect when it comes to discrimination
in workplaces.  Win interviews Louise,
who is forty-six years old and worked at the same company for twenty-one years.

She expresses her frustration at being taken for granted by her employers, who constantly
pass her over for promotions, while younger, male colleagues are favoured. She
has been quiet about this and adjusted herself to this sexism, until she decided
to seek new prospects. But instead of meeting support, Win reprimands her for
talking too much at the job interview and offers her a position at a cosmetic
company, because it is a field that is “easier for women”. This reinforces the
idea of typical gender roles, where female and male sectors of work are clearly

Moreover, it is interesting to
see the effects these expectations in relation to gender in high-pressure work
environments have on Marlene, in particular on her identity as a woman. What is
interesting about Top Girls is the
way Churchill embeds subtle metaphors in her work, that once spotted are
extremely effective. For example, each of the historical heroines can be seen
as a symbol for different facets of Marlene’s identity. Pope Joan, who dressed
as a boy in order to gain access to education and continued to live as a man,
is a symbol of how Marlene had to give up her female body, and like Patient Griselda
suppressed any maternal instinct and   gave up her role as a mother in order to be “worthy”
of and able to achieve success.

In the Brueghel painting, Dull
Gret is clad in an apron and armour, holding a sword while leading a group of
women to hell. On her way, she fights an army of devils and daemons and simultaneously
fills her basket with gold (Tycer, pp. 29-30). This insinuates that, in pursuit
of wealth and prosperousness, female emancipation depends on using “male tools”,
as symbolised by the sword, and adopting the same aggressive, competitive mind-set
that has oppressed women for centuries.

Lady Nijo might be the most
materialistic of the women, as she seems more influenced by and proud of the
time before she became a wandering nun, when she was the Emperor’s courtesan. She
reflects on this time positively and does not realise her own prostitution for
what it is, instead feeling honoured to have been chosen for this role in
society. However, it seems like Churchill does not imply that her character
should be condemned, but rather the society that conditioned her into this way
of thinking. Nijo does not challenge the role she is given in her society.  She complies and adapts, seemingly without
hesitation. This reflects how Marlene views her role in a patriarchal society. They
use the small window of opportunity to compete in their respective business

Isabella Bird has refused to
marry at a young age in favour of her career as a writer, and even though she
married her sister’s doctor later in life, it seemed more like a restriction
than a blessing: “I did wish marriage had seemed more of a step. I tried very
hard to cope with the ordinary drudgery of life” (p.11). Marlene also rejects
the idea of traditional, domestic family life. While talking to her sister, she
mentions that “there’s always men”, but none of them seem to be able to respect
her independence: “They’re waiting for me to turn into the little woman …, I
need adventures more” (p.83). The loneliness her success entails is evident
from the beginning. She celebrates with long dead historical figures rather
than real friends.

Stylistically and in regards to
structure, Churchill is doing a lot of interesting things. The overlapping
dialogue and the fact that the scenes are chronologically out of order make the
audience participate and actively tie the plot together. The room for interpretation
of the narrative is endless. The non-linear structure and the effective use of
dialogue, character and literary devices such as metaphors and allusions give
room for discussion of both contemporary and historical issues linked to
feminism, especially when it comes to work and class.

Girls predicted much of the class struggle of 1980’s Britain, and
illustrated the prevailing problem of the disparity in wealth, while giving
room for the representation of real life working women, including the underrepresented
working-class. In the wake of new feminist movements like Time’s Up that attempt to shine light upon the struggles of all
working women, in all sectors of work and from all backgrounds, the questions Top Girls raises might be more pressing
than ever.