Caryl Churchill has commented that Top Girls grew from two particular initial ideas: that of women from the past appearing to and speaking with present-day women, and the idea of the variety of jobs that women fill, both in the economy and in culture. Though her work is strongly influenced by Churchill’s feminism—she wrote Vinegar Tom (1976) in collaboration with a feminist theater group—the scenarios she presents here open up the question of what feminism is for different women, how they define the concept not only in theory but also through their actions and choices.
The solidarity of women becomes both a theme and a problem. The historical figures of the dinner party in act 1 can be seen as a context for Marlene’s success, a tradition of women who took risks and made their presences felt. Yet each is also presented as isolated in her historical moment, unsupported by a larger society of women and actively discouraged or attacked by men or institutions created by men. Similarly, in the ensuing modern scenes, Marlene and the other Top Girls are shown to have paid high prices in the attempt to succeed in a “man’s world” not established with their ascent or their needs in mind.
Perhaps gender equity has improved if a woman such as Marlene can rise into management or Margaret Thatcher can be named prime minister; these advances form the basis for Marlene’s claim that women do not need a movement or feminist politics to move forward. This seeming rise is potentially damaging to women; Joyce and Angie’s scenes show that, in Churchill’s view, most women face disadvantages and lack of opportunity and that the career track of Marlene is a rare exception, not a prototype that all women can follow. For every Lady Nijo or Isabella Bird, there have been uncounted women restricted in their options, left to obscurity and poverty.
For every Marlene, there are many women like the three job applicants: underqualified, unconfident, and lacking the rare combination of intelligence, beauty, drive, and style that have propelled Marlene. Marlene offers to help them, and companies pay her well to do so, but the women must play by her rules—for example, keeping quiet about plans to marry someday. Remaking women in her own image is the key to Marlene’s success, and supposedly to theirs. Aggressive confidence and the power to persuade employers and sales clients are methods recognized by the men with whom such women must work and against whom they must compete. Yet even the women who manage to “beat” the patriarchal system are merely outwitting it, not reforming it to make the field more fair to all women.
The connection between economics and feminism is continually at issue in Top Girls. Women have traditionally been relegated to the private sphere of homemaking and parenting, and a woman such as Marlene, who dares not only to enter but also to insist on advancement in the public sphere of economic activity, necessarily embodies a larger, inherent cultural tension. Giving up her daughter, beating out other women, and living without a partner are Marlene’s particular instances of the larger disjunctions between women’s rights and the rules of capitalist society, as Churchill sees it.
The problem is not simple: The issue is not whether successful businesswomen are paragons of feminist victory or bloodthirsty man-haters (though characters in the play express both these notions) but whether these women, like all beneficiaries of capitalism, have lost much in the quality of their lives, even as they appear to reject economic subservience to men. Such women, like their male counterparts, have acquiesced to a system of domination and profit refined over centuries by men in power, and even if they benefit from it as individuals, they ultimately are complicit in the oppression of their own gender. Marlene works at eradicating the signs of inequality between women and men in public life, but she does not pay attention to the larger patterns of dominance. This can take the form of Marlene’s competing subtly with her friends Win and Nell, her apparent neglect of her sister and daughter, or even the spiritual emptiness and despair behind her bright demeanor, glimpses of which Churchill allows at moments throughout the play.