The play reminds us that any feminism worth its salt needs to transcend questions of individual identity
There has been a trend in fourth-wave feminism for exploring the stories of women overlooked by history; but almost 40 years before Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Top Girls did it, for grownups. Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, now revived at the National Theatre by Lyndsey Turner, is perhaps best known for its opening scene – a Saturday night dinner party featuring Pope Joan, Lady Nijō, Dull Gret, Isabella Bird, Patient Griselda and a Thatcherite recruitment manager called Marlene. It’s a genius opener, a dreamlike sequence in which the women share their tales of suffering and patriarchy, poignantly but also hilariously, as they proceed to get more and more wasted on Frascati. It’s very, very funny. It sticks the knife in while you’re laughing, off-guard, and then twists it.
When I first read Top Girls at the age of 17, I would never have called myself a feminist, and I didn’t understand it as I do now, but I loved it, and it was wondrous to finally see it staged (since it was written it has hardly been performed, which is at odds with the high regard in which the play is held). But what I was unprepared for was how little it has dated. You come away from the performance not only with a broad perspective of women’s history, but also with the feeling that not as much has changed as Churchill perhaps would have hoped.
The implication of that opening scene is that, in the wake of her promotion to managing director, Marlene sees herself on a par with these women: it is her fantasy. And yet as the other women tell their stories of rape and birth, infanticide and cruelty and warfare, encompassing art and travel and poetry and religion, the measliness of individual success stands starkly apart. Written in the age of the shoulder pad, Top Girls presents us with feminism under capitalism and asks: is this what we fought for? It’s a question as relevant today as it was in the heyday of Thatcherism.
Top Girls is as much about class and education as it is about gender, and it is this that the play most resonates. In order to have a career, Marlene leaves her child in the care of her sister in rural Norfolk. The bitter row between the two of them forms the climax of the play. It’s about individual success at the expense of the collective struggle, and the abandonment of the vulnerable to poverty and isolation in favour of personal gain. Post-EU referendum rhetoric has centred on the “left behind”, a phrase that could easily be used to describe Marlene’s sister and daughter, who grows up to have learning difficulties. (“She’s a bit thick,” Marlene says, “she’s not going to make it.”). Is this the price of “making it?”
Top Girls hit me in the gut. I took my mum, who once said that she felt that she had been “left behind” too. The scenes set at the recruitment agency, in which a succession of female candidates are patronised and underestimated, their aspirations eroded, will be recognisable to women who have gaps in their CVs from caring, who have struggled to find stable work in a casual, zero-hours economy. That 1980s ruthlessness hasn’t vanished, it has simply mutated and become accepted as the natural order of things. The reliance on profit-making agencies and umbrella companies, which leech cash from professions such as teaching and social care, has only increased.
Fourth-wave feminists have much to learn from the play. The current focus on individual empowerment, on personal identity (and “branding”) and career success is inherently capitalistic. Even when feminists try to be intersectional, it often lacks a class analysis. The benefits and gains that have seen many women succeed in the workplace have left many other women behind. The former group still have their struggles, of course, because of the way the system is set up, particularly with regards to childcare. But the latter don’t even have the luxury of that problem, and government austerity that goes much further than even Thatcher would have dared has worsened women’s poverty
Top Girls tells us how any feminism worth its salt needs to transcend questions of individual identity: being a woman is not enough (“You’d have liked Hitler if he was a woman,” Marlene’s sister says), it’s not all about you: it’s a collective issue, and one that requires class analysis. But most importantly, it tells us how much more there is left to fight for.
•Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author