The characters introduced in the first act, fictional and historical characters from art and literature, are all women who have experienced significant trauma, social upheaval or remarkable levels of achievement, all connected to gender norms prevalent in their respective eras. Lady Nijo, for example, is a consort to the emperor of japan in the 13th century, who undergoes shame and humiliation when she is demoted from her social status. Pope Joan dressed as a man and was stoned to death in the street during a Papal procession after giving birth and revealing her gender. Both characters are intelligent and articulate, yet reluctant to reveal the emotional depths of their trauma. Dull Gret is a character from a Brueghel painting who fights the demons of hell, but has a fairly flat depiction, despite her humor and earthy appeal.
Marleen and Joyce, the sisters whose contemporary story frames the play, also portray women whose personal lives underscore the difficulty women still have in the world, overcoming gender expectations. Joyce resents Marlene's independence and success, while Marlene mourns the loss of the daughter she bore and gave to Joyce to raise as her own. When it is revealed that Joyce had a miscarriage as a result of exhaustion caused by caring for Marlene's baby, the sisters' relationship is fractured further.
All of the characters in TOP GIRLS can be seen to illustrate the themes of feminism being part of an evolving ongoing social process, one that is fraught with deals and difficulty regardless of the historical context where women's achievements and trials take place.