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Examining the contexts in which British women playwrights flourish, Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt observed that “the extent to which women dramatists find a ‘place in theatrical activity, or initiate their own ‘alternative’, counter-cultural, oppositional theatre ‘spaces’, is determined by the material, political, cultural, geographical, and theatrical circumstances of the historical moment” (3). This seems to be very true in the case of Caryl Churchill, who—though, or perhaps because, she is a self-prescribed socialist feminist—had her most productive period as playwright during the rule of Britain’s first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Characterized as a time of growing conservatism, capitalism, and individualism in England, the Thatcher era provided Churchill with material for some of her most famous plays such as Top Girls, Fen, and Serious Money. Caryl Churchill herself said about the creation of and inspiration for Top Girls: “Thatcher had just become prime minister; there was talk about whether it was an advance to have a women prime minister if it was someone with politics like hers: She may be a woman but she isn’t a sister, she may be a sister but she isn’t a comrade. And in fact things have got worse much for women under Thatcher” (Betsko and Koenig 78). As a socialist or materialist feminist, Churchill was particularly interested in Thatcher’s ambivalent stance as a role model for women and her connection to bourgeois feminism. Written as a direct response to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to political power, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls examines British feminism and capitalism under Thatcher’s rule and advocates a return to the materialist-feminist values which were once at the core of the British women’s movement. Firstly providing some context on the political climate and contemporaneous feminism, I will analyze how Churchill captures these issues in Top Girls 
Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 and her two subsequent administrations brought enormous and undeniable changes to the British political scene. According to Peacock, Thatcher’s  right-wing economic policies and opposition to the established welfare capitalism “would systematically attempt to eliminate the socialist structures underpinning many areas of British society” (1). Coming into office during a time of growing inflation, monetary restraints and high unemployment, Thatcher opposed an increasing nationalization of the economy, the restriction of market forces by state intervention and the power of political-economic interest groups, especially the trade unions. Her famous credo, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families” (qtd. in Naismith 59), confirms her renouncing of state responsibility toward its citizens and the emergence of what was to be known as “enterprise culture,” a culture where “freedom now equaled free-market” and individualism equaled one’s ability to compete (Peacock 15). 
For many women, this emphasis on individualism and competitiveness came at a high price. Though it allowed a select few to improve their economic and social status, many of their less fortunate “sisters” were left behind. In fact, commentators noted, similarly to Churchill, “widespread agreement that Thatcherism has seriously damaged women’s interests in Britain” through both its economic and its social manifestations (Jessop et al 48). Of course, there were some dissenters to this opinion. When Thatcher first took office, many women believed that the mere presence of a strong, decisive woman in a position of power would prove that women were capable leaders and that this in itself would have to improve the status of all women. Mary Stott, for instance, a writer and longtime campaigner for women’s rights is quoted as saying that Thatcher’s rise to power “has done incalculable good, because it means we have conquered the credibility gap and proved that a woman can become Prime Minister” (qtd. in Borders). However, to most of those who concerned themselves with tracking the welfare of women in Britain, the bigger picture looked very different indeed from the image of female strength and success. “As a politician,” Ros Brunt points out, “Thatcher never made any claim to ‘represent’ women or speak in any way on their behalf. Nor indeed has she ever done anything for women, apart from making the majority much more hard up” (23). Even though Margaret Thatcher and many other women who began from a position of relative privilege were able to excel in the 1980s, the women at the lowest rungs of the social ladder—the unemployed or under-employed, working-class women and women of color, in other words those already most susceptible to economic hardship—were negatively affected by Tory policy.
These are exactly the “material, political, and cultural … circumstances of the historical moment” that Caryl Churchill captures and criticizes in Top Girls (Aston and Reinelt 3). First performed in 1982 at the Royal Court Theatre, the play contains numerous specific references to both the social and economic strands of Thatcherism and a deep critique of the success ethic which was becoming more prevalent at this time. According to Aston and Reinelt, “Caryl Churchill wrote Top Girls to question the extent to which second wave feminists were buying into Thatcher ideology to the detriment of a variety of real women” (14). Combining the issues of class and feminism, the play presents the ‘top girls’ who accept capitalistic structures to succeed in a patriarchal system and establish a female hierarchy just like male hierarchy so much deplored by feminists. 
The six women from different historical periods and cultures in the first act can be seen as foreshadowing the central themes of Thatcherism, female success and sisterhood, and class differences of the subsequent acts. As Churchill explains in her “Note on Characters”, Pope Joan occupied a position which even to this day remains inaccessible to women: “disguised as a man, she is thought to have been Pope between 854-856.” Similarly, Isabella Bird (1831-1904), who “lived in Edinburgh, and travelled extensively between the ages of 40 to 70,” experienced something well beyond the household experiences of most women of her day. Likewise, Lady Nijo (b. 1258), a Japanese woman who “was an Emperor’s courtesan and later a Buddhist nun­ who traveled on foot through Japan,” came from a family acutely conscious of its heritage. Patient Griselda, “the obedient wife whose story is told by Chaucer in “The Clerk’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales,” elevated to membership in a small social elite by virtue of her marriage to a Marquis. Even Dull Gret, who “is the subject of the Brueghel painting . . . in which a woman in apron and armour leads a crowd of women charging through hell and fighting the devils,” is represented as having experienced something not likely experienced by the majority of women of any period. Like the other women in Act One, Marlene achieves her status as a Top Girl on the basis of individual accomplishment because she attains something beyond the reach of the majority of women in her time. 
However, these individual achievements do, for the most part, little to challenge patriarchal society as a whole. Except for Dull Gret, the successes of the various women can be divided into two categories: they become “top girls” of their time by either taking on roles that were traditionally reserved for men, as in the case of Pope Joan and Isabella Bird, or by embodying archetypal feminine qualities, such as Lady Nijo and Griselda who is celebrated for her patience. Thus, they also conform to configurations of success common to bourgeois feminist or “post-feminist” thinking—that women of all sorts can achieve great things, and that society need not change its basic structures in order for them to do so. As Joseph Marohl points out, “All the women at the dinner party are able to detect areas of intolerance and sexual tyranny in the cultures of the other women present; their blind spots are the inequities of their own cultures” (319). When Marlene asks in shock if the emperor of Japan raped Nijo, she replies “No, of course not, Marlene, I belonged to him, it was what I was brought up for from a baby” (57). Joan, rather than wondering why a woman cannot be pope, says “I shouldn’t have been a woman” (69), and Griselda maintains to the end that her husband was doing the right thing in taking away her children, although she admits “it would have been nicer if Walter hadn’t had to” (81). All of them, including Marlene, who too is a “historical figure,” belonging to a particular place and time and every bit as bound up in the prejudices and traditions of her culture as the other women, are defenders of the norms of their own societies.
Unlike the other “top girls,” Dull Gret shows resistance towards oppression and a recognition of positive collective action by women. Belonging to the lowest rural peasant class and being uneducated and somewhat coarse, Gret refused either to emulate or concede to the oppressor. Instead, she and the other peasant women responded to oppression with violent resistance. Gret emphasizes that she and her neighbors were not ladies but simply housewives who “come out just as they was from baking or washing in their aprons” (28). Although capitalism, represented in Gret’s story by the “big devil” who excretes money from a “big hole in his arse” (28) prompted some women to put individual attainment above social reform, many more women recognized and responded to the need for collective action. According to Gret, “a lot of the women stop and get some money. But most of us is fighting the devils” (28). Presenting Gret and the other women from the lowest social class as the symbol of effective, collective female resistance, Churchill suggests that gender transformation requires a corresponding building of solidarity across class lines. 
Gender and class are major barriers to women in Marlene’s time, just as they were in the periods from which the other women come. The Waitress, who stands in stark contrast to the other women in the act, is the only character who does not qualify as a Top Girl and, consequently, must serve the other Top Girls. Going through the entire act without speaking, she represents the vast majority of ordinary women who silently struggle against poverty and oppression. Within capitalist and patriarchal societies, the play suggests, Top Girls achieve success on the backs of ordinary working women. Like the unexceptional women in the subsequent acts, the waitress makes concrete the enormous difference between individual achievement and collective social change. 
The various “top girls” from history do not, then, reflect the expected celebration of female achievement or expansion of opportunities for women. Rather, they represent a group of women who fail to come together as a sisterhood strongly enough to resist their common oppression. As Ruby Cohn notes, “This all-woman party establishes no feminine community” (Retreats 132). Marlene’s attempts to create some sort of sisterhood amidst their diversity fail:
MARLENE. Magnificent all of you. … I want to drink a toast to you all. 
ISABELLA. To yourself surely, / we’re here to celebrate your success. 

ISABELLA. To Marlene.*
MARLENE. And all of us.
JOAN. *Marlene.
NIJO. Marlene.
GRET. Marlene. (67)
Marlene tries to unify them on the basis of their “extraordinary achievements,” but the other women only salute Marlene’s individual success and refuse to be drawn into such a false union. For even when they agree, they never claim to speak for women as a collective. This refusal to be presented as a group is also apparent by their staggered arrival to the dinner and their overlapping dialogue. They keep interrupting each other during their conversation and only relay information about themselves instead of listening and engaging with what was previously said. 
The contemporary women at the Top Girls employment agency, Marlene and her co-workers Win and Nell, embody the values of bourgeois feminism by only “seeking equality with men within existing social structures.” (Tycer 15). This is characterized by them having internalized patriarchal values, adopting stereotypically male attitudes and behaviour and even masculine language.Win and Nell, for example, discuss career success in masculine terminology,  never challenging the notion that drive and ability are linked to male sexuality, when claiming “Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard and that’s that” (100). Ros Brunt’s assessment of Margaret Thatcher is quite similar: “She set out to make it in a man’s world and was never interested in even negotiating the terms of patriarchy” (23). He goes on to say, “she became known to her colleagues as ‘the best man in the cabinet’, and masculine attributes were grafted on to her femininity in ways that made her doubly superior. The soviet epithet ‘Iron Lady’, and her own slogan, ‘The Lady’s Not For Turning’, displayed her as a woman with more guts for a desperate political gamble than any wimpy man” (23). 
However, by internalizing patriarchal values in order to rise professionally in a society whose norms are determined by men, the women who have gained a position of power in the ‘new’ office culture of the 1980s also replicate men’s prejudices against women and reinforce gender oppression. According to Jane Thomas, “they have forsaken a phallocratic female identity in order to embrace an equally phallocratic male one characterised by the dismissal of and disdain for all things female including their clients…” (182). This can, for instance, be seen during Marlene’s interview with prospective client Jeanine, who enters the interview hoping for a raise, a position in advertising, and the opportunity to travel. Yet, once she reveals her engagement, Marlene envisions Jeanine as a mother and subsequently assumes that Jeanine will not follow a significant career path. Instead, she gets offered a position as a secretary at a lampshade company (see Churchill 84-87). In contrast, male clients Win and Nell discuss, though “not overbright,” were sent to large companies such as IBM and Prestel (Churchill 101). “Always urging female clients to accept rather than challenge” (Kritzer 145), Marlene, Win, and Nell ultimately confirm the status quo and never question any of society’s deep structures or the necessity of the hierarchies in which they situate themselves. 

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