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...
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