Marlene, the thirty-three-year-old, recently promoted managing director of the Top Girls Employment Agency. A working-class woman who left behind her illegitimate daughter, she has achieved success in the business world by being as tough, ruthless, and aggressive as any man. Politically conservative and emotionally cold, she represents women who have “made it” by incorporating patriarchal standards of success and who are contemptuous of those who have selected more traditional paths. She left her industrial hometown and chose sales as a career because she believed she would be judged on her performance. Later, she settled into a career with Top Girls as a placement counselor, using her knowledge of the business world to help other women get a start. She is sympathetic to the agency’s applicants and expects them to share her ambition and sense of individualism.
Joyce, Marlene’s older sister and acting mother to Angie. She works as a cleaning woman. She stayed home to care for her parents and her husband, as well as Angie, after Marlene left home for London. Politically liberal, with a hatred for the wealthy people who employ her, she rejects Marlene’s money, pity, and contempt and accepts without regret the choices she has made.
Angie, Marlene’s slow-witted seventeen-year-old daughter. Driven by a murderous hatred of Joyce, she suspects that Marlene is her real mother and runs away to London to join her. She is one of those girls who will not, as Marlene says, “make it.”
Pope Joan, who, disguised as a man, reigned between 854 and 856. Driven by a thirst for knowledge in philosophy, religion, and metaphysics, she had to assume the male role to achieve her goals. At Marlene’s imagined promotion celebration, she is one of five historical and mythical dinner guests, all of whom are linked to present-day characters by the dramatic device of having an actress play more than one role. Louise is her contemporary physical analogue; Marlene is her emotional one.
Dull Gret, the subject of a Pieter Brueghel painting, in which she is dressed in armor and an apron, leading a crowd of women through hell to fight the devils. The only lower-class woman at the dinner who accepts her status, she has reared ten children, whom she is willing to go to any lengths to save. She is linked with Angie physically and with Joyce temperamentally.
Lady Nijo, born in 1258, a Japanese emperor’s courtesan and later a Buddhist nun, who traveled through Japan on foot. Totally dominated by the patriarchy, she has suffered through the murder of her children because they were not boys and the economic consequences of being out of favor with the court. Win is her counterpart.
Isabella Bird, a Scottish world traveler who lived from 1831 to 1904. She idolizes her sister and her late husband, admitting to having experienced great loneliness. The actress who plays her also plays Louise.
Patient Griselda, the obedient wife of “The Clerk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Constantly tested by her husband, she always responds with acceptance. The actress who plays her also plays Nell and Jeanine.
Jeanine, a client who is looking for a job so that she can get married. She lacks self-confidence and direction.
Louise, a client who has devoted her life to her company, only to see men promoted over her. She has spent twenty-one years with her employer and developed a department, but her career has stagnated.
Win, an interviewer and employment counselor. She is having an affair with a married man. She realizes that she is being used, to an extent, because he is unlikely to leave his wife for her.
Nell, another interviewer and employment counselor. She is dating two men, one of whom wants to marry her. She is afraid that if she marries him, she will have to give up her career.
Shona, an applicant. She is confident and has an impressive résumé. Nell discovers that she is a gifted charlatan with no actual business experience.