There is also political history behind ‘Top Girls’ In the row between Marlene and Joyce on page 53, there is mention of Margaret Thatcher. Leader of the Conservative Party and the first female Prime Minister, she came to power in 1979 (almost certainly the year before the majority of the play is set). Marlene, who states on page 52 that she ‘believe[s] in the individual’ (and is therefore a supporter of individualist, or American feminism), shares and supports Thatcher’s views. We are given the impression that while Marlene has voted for Thatcher, Joyce remains loyal to her fiercely right-wing Labour heritage, and it is from this which the political argument seems to grow.
Given that the play was written a few years after it was set, Churchill has also included undertones of bitter irony. Presumably during the flashback to Marlene’s visit with Angie and Joyce it is 1979 and Thatcher has only just been elected. Marlene claims that the Prime Minister will ‘get the economy back on its feet’ (page 52). By the time the play was written two years later, in 1981, the country was already slipping deeper into recession, and so the fact that Thatcher had done nothing of the sort would have been immediately apparent to audiences of the time. This also adds a chilling significance to Angie’s last line, 'Frightening', on page 54. It seems that she is not referring simply to her bad dream, but to the recession; the appalling times ahead for the entire country and particularly young, unqualified women like herself, without the intelligence or confidence to rise to the top.
Given its nature, social context is of utmost importance within ‘Top Girls’. While writing the play, Churchill had undoubtedly been inspired by the pre-1980s status quo; one of a male-dominated and orientated society. A woman’s place was still, by and large, in the home and her job would normally have been a temporary, low-powered and moderately paid affair to bring in money for herself and/or her family until she was married. There was a strong emphasis on the family, and values were still traditional in this respect. Divorce would have been quite unusual and a woman would certainly have been expected to give up work once she fell pregnant with her first child if she hadn’t upon marriage, leaving it to the man of the house to support them.
Therefore, there was a lamentable lack of women's rights. However, the 1980s brought with it Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and a sudden surge in feminism. Churchill, herself a highly educated and empowered woman, can be seen as a second wave playwright- one writing on the topic and in support of the second wave of feminism which occurred in the 1960s and 70s (the first having taken place at the turn of the century with the Suffragettes). Yet for most of the play she appears to be arguing against feminism, or rather, against Margaret Thatcher's views of it. Thatcher and ‘Reagan’ (page 53), the American President who rose to power in 1981, both supported American feminism. This set of ideals focussed primarily on the individual gain, with little regard for those Marlene describes as the 'stupid', the 'lazy' and the 'frightened' (page 54). These views are certainly held by Marlene, and in many ways Churchill shows them to be a destructive force against her life and ethics. They cause her not only to forfeit her own familial impulses (husband, child) but also to impose upon and burden those around her. She abandons her sister, Joyce, and leaves her to tend to their mother and otherwise fulfil the filial duties of them both, totally unsupported. She gives up Angie (her own illegitimate daughter), too, and leaves Joyce to raise her, neglecting even to visit them with any sort of frequency. In doing this Joyce loses the only child she was ever able to conceive because she was continually stretched to her limits tending to Marlene's baby. This, Churchill shows the audience, is the result of Marlene's personal drive for success.
So rather than American feminism, Churchill appears to be promoting socialist feminism; a group movement towards improved rights and equality which does not merely dispense with all those who are vulnerable and do not possess a ruthless business instinct; the 'stupid, lazy and frightened' (page 54). It is poignant that Churchill paints Marlene's own child as one of those she considers undeserving of any 'help' (page 54) in life. Through this, Churchill forms a clear comment on the extent to which purely selfish aspirations can strip one of empathy and caring and can blind one totally to those around them, even those they should naturally concern themselves with. This also gives a potential second meaning to Mrs. Kidd's somewhat anti-feminist remark that Marlene is 'not natural' on page 37.
The theme of sacrifice is strongly present throughout the play, and it appears to mirror one particularly popular idea of the time. Following the Second World War when women had needed to work while the men fought overseas, women’s rights- particularly those pertaining to the workplace- had become an increasingly important issue. As more women entered the workplace in the 1970s and ‘80s, attempting to compete openly with the men, the question emerged as to whether women could really have it all. Many argued that a woman’s place was simply not in the workplace but at home, raising children… or that they were destined not to have families at all. Meanwhile, others began to protest that a career and family were both possible. Mrs. Kidd is clearly used by Churchill as a vehicle for the former, telling Marlene that she is 'not natural' and indeed, that she will ‘end up miserable and lonely’ (page 37). It is particularly interesting that she is both anti-feminist and female. This was perhaps to bring attention to the genuine mindset that existed and to show just how far into society it had penetrated. Had Churchill voiced these opinions through a male character, she would have risked it being mistaken for a comment on male chauvinism or even a jab at men stemming from personal bias.
Through the increasing popularity and accessibility of film and television, the world was opening up during the 1970s. These mediums were enabling more ideas to be presented to a wider section of the public, which in turn began to create a more liberal, open-minded society. This affected the theatre too, and meant that subject matter was considered acceptable which would not have been tolerated even a decade previously. One extreme example of this was ‘Gay Sweatshop’, an educational gay rights theatre company which opened in 1975. It also enabled dramatists such as Churchill to produce political works which challenged mainstream views and yet would still draw in an audience.
Through ‘Top Girls’, Churchill is undoubtedly targeting the feminist audience of the 1980s. It is, after all, a play performed solely by female actors, dealing with highly pertinent feminist issues, and in many ways Churchill appears to present these women in a sympathetic light. The first scene, for example, appears dedicated to winning the audience’s compassion for the five great historical women who lost and endured so much. Yet there is also a sense that the play is directed not just at those Churchill supported but equally- or even more- at those she did not. After all, Marlene herself is nothing if not the perfect example of a strong Thatcherite woman, subscribed to American feminism and her personal gain. The tragedy that lies hidden within her story and is echoed throughout almost every other ‘successful’ character becomes cautionary when viewed in this light; a warning to these women to reassess their own views and perhaps even to work together for equality rather than pushing themselves forward into a world which will not always look kindly upon them.
It is also possible that Churchill is trying to convey a message to a less-receptive audience; the ‘Mrs. Kidds’ of the 1980s. By projecting popular anti-feminist sentiments onto a character designed to be dislikeable, it may be that Churchill is also encouraging the supporters of the pre-1980s status quo to examine their own motives and reasoning, and to inspire them to reconsider their views.