The place of the feminine within literary and political discourse and the discussion of the complexities of gender continues as an unending struggle. Though this attempt for positionality within history has only recently become a central point of contention within the discipline of gender studies, for female authors across time and space, this struggle remains ongoing. The emergence of writings on feminist utopias—worlds without men, worlds with subservient men, worlds with matriarchal power—lies in a reaction to the erasure of women within literary and theatrical spaces. Works such as the early Renaissance writing of Christine de Pizan in Le Livre de la Cité des Dames or The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) and prominent Bengali writer and activist Rokeya Hussain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905) posit similar notions and present worlds for women. They utilise proto-feminist treatises in dream sequences to serve as extended reactions to patriarchal mores and misconceptions regarding femininity and womanhood in their times. Despite the centuries and cultural traditions that separate these writers, one can see common strains of opposition to phallogocentric writing and a quest to center the feminine experience in a world that exists outside the bounds constructed by men by creating, in their respective cases, an allegorical city of ladies.
Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls (1982) positions itself amongst such seminal works in establishing a feminist dramaturgy or an “écriture féminine” (Cixous 882). Much like de Pizan and Hussain, Chruchill constructs what appears to be an inherently feminine world through an intermediation of ‘dream’ sequences and ‘slice of life’ realities. However, as the play evolves, the ideals of solidarity, sisterhood, and a utopic future are questioned. What emerges by the end of the play instead is what I argue to be an antithesis of feminist utopia. At the center of Churchill’s depiction of this antithesis are her political leanings towards socialist and Marxist political thinking of the 1960s and her reaction to the ‘dystopian’ pessimism that emerged in the 1980s as a consequence of Thatcherism. The presence of the first female Prime Minister in England seemed the penultimate victory, or ‘utopia,’ for which second-wave feminists had been fighting. However, her policies were heavily criticized and led people to question whether “it was an advance to have a woman prime minister if it was someone with policies like her. She may be a woman but she isn’t a sister, she may be a duster but she isn’t a comrade” (Betsko and Koenig 78). The notions of collective identity, sisterhood, camaraderie, and solidarity stood in opposition to the essence of Thatcher’s politics, who claimed, “There is no such thing as society! There are individual men and women, and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first”. The following decline of welfare economics, increased unemployment, and assumed responsibility of the individual for their social conditions resulted in a clear demarcation of ‘us versus them’ and a myth of equality. This transformation of Britain from a vision of hope to one of bleak pessimism is mirrored in the play as the contradictions in the conception of a feminist utopia arise wherein both showcase success as rooted in individual rather than collective welfare. The continuation of individualist mentality within the main characters of the play represents the dominance of capitalist individualism and harkens to the conflict between solidarity and individual gain that marked its rise.
Churchill, in the play, delves into the contradictions between feminism and capitalism and reflects on the central question: can there be feminism without socialism? Or rather, can feminism exist without solidarity? Thus, in my paper, I argue for Churchill’s purposeful absence of a feminist utopia within the play as an attempt to mirror the tensions between female solidarity and individualistic success in Thatcherite Britain. Utilizing Helene Cixous’s framework of écriture féminine, I explore the contradictions in individualistic feminine success and the construction of anti-utopia through two veins: the continued dominance of phallogocentric language in Top Girls and Marlene’s individualistic model of success at the cost of her ‘sisters.’ Ultimately, I extend the concept of écriture féminine from a form of women’s writing to a world where women are free, arguing that Churchill’s dramaturgical practices engage with this idea of freedom through their rejection of phallogocentric, masculine writing and theatrical conventions and instead come closer to the notion of a feminist utopia.
The utopian, egalitarian facade of the Top Girls Institute, claiming to have endless work opportunities for women, showcases the inherent contradictions within its model of ‘feminine success’ through the example of Marlene’s bourgeois feminism. I argue that these contradictions and Marlene’s individualism oppose the concept of écriture féminine (women’s writing) as Cixous defines it. In her manifesto, The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous espouses the construction of a new form of writing, écriture féminine, that would allow women to liberate themselves from the phallogocentric language that continues to propagate their otherization and attempt to come towards a future that encapsulates the differences in femininity. She argues for the construction of a new form of writing, one that would embody the beginning of a social and political movement that encourages “women to bring to surface what masculine history has repressed in them” (Cixous 889) and to write against a history that has continuously defined them as “the Other.” Although Jacques Derrida defines phallogocentrism to refer to the privileging of the masculine (phallus) in the construction of meaning, specifically through the use of language, Cixous takes it further to encompass the literal and textual silencing of women through male writing and systems of power. She premises écriture féminine on the visualisation of women and their “shattering entry into history” (Cixous 880) to formulate a utopic future, which is represented in the Top Girls Institute by the construction of a predominantly female-led space. The illusion of the institute’s feminism is created through its employment of primarily women and by its emphasis on two characters, Louise and Marlene, who seem to have made it to the ‘top.’ However, the dialogic developments between Wil and Nell (two female employees at the firm) and Joyce (Marlene’s biological sister) and Marlene indicate a binary of “us and [versus] them” (Churchill 112) as events progress, countering this narrative. These binaries, coupled with Churchill’s representation of the institute, begs the question: is the world of Top Girls feminist, or, is it merely a space consisting of women?
The institution’s establishment as a female employment agency is contradicted by the inherently masculine landscape and language with which it defines itself, and through that, it becomes “the locus where women’s repression has been perpetuated” (Cixous 879). Churchill purposely highlights Top Girls’ bureaucratic, hierarchical nature through this limitation. Phrases such as “top girls,” “high flyers,” “tough birds,” and “pretty bastard” all seem to fall prey to a phallogocentric and masculine-coded rhetoric (Cixous 877) that might otherwise constrain women within the economic system. It further signifies the unanimous link between the masculine and capitalist spheres and their role in the reduction of the feminine experience. Unlike the arguments of defining oneself through a ‘new world,’ the language that workers use within the institution showcases that women’s place there contains the ultimate self-contradiction—its definition through phrases from the ‘masculine’ (and capitalist) sphere. Its association with the masculine is represented through the women who have found success within the institution; for example, Louise, stuck in middle management, claims in her retirement monologue how she thought she “pass[ed] as a man at work” (Churchill 68). Even Marlene is defined by her employees, Nell and Win, through her visceral rejection of ‘femininity.’ When she is promoted, these employees claim, “[o]ur Marlene has got quite more balls than Howards, and that’s that” (65). The representation of the limitations of phallogocentric language on women defining their identity, as posited by Cixous through the logic of antilove, is literalised here, where the characters are seen demonstrating “antinarcissism, [a] narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven’t got” (Cixous 878).
The system seems to be coded, designed with a language to exclude, and made for a select few—an idea that gains precedence following Nell and Win’s discussion about their future at the firm and whether there is “room upward” (Churchill 61). The women intend to gain acclaim; however, Win’s response, “Marlene’s filled it up” (61), showcases a pessimistic picture of utopian ideals. The institution allows ‘success,’ however, within specific confines that only a select few can achieve—namely, women like Marlene, Louise, and Maggie, who reject conventional definitions of femininity. The rhetoric of ‘anti-love’ thus can be seen as self-contained within these characters attaining ‘success,’ in addition to the women that are ‘left behind,’ and functions as an allusion towards the enmity that Thatcherite politics created amongst individuals. Marlene becomes the subject of attack regarding her position numerous times throughout the text, is critical of those who have not achieved the same, and begets conflict in the institution through her success. Harold’s wife, Mrs. Kidd, attacks Marlene by calling her “one of those ball breakers, that’s what you are. You’ll end up lonely/miserable, you’re not natural” (Churchill 77) when Marlene is promoted instead of her husband. Her critique exemplifies the broader conflictual residue in men due to women entering the workforce and highlights the dichotomy between a ‘house-maker’ and a ‘top-girl.’ Binaries continue within the play wherein Win and Nell, the working-class employees at the institute, also understand their distinction from Marlene and the ‘high-flyers’ where, in Win’s words, “it’s the top executive that doesn’t come in as early as the working girl” (Churchill 64). The difference between these women, exemplified by the hierarchical nature of the institution, harkens to Churchill’s political commentary on Thatcherism, claiming that her politics gave “no guarantee of equal opportunity” (Tycer 21) for all women; only women willing to sacrifice certain aspects of their lives for individual achievement benefitted from Thatcherism.
Churchill’s declaration that “there is no such thing as right-wing feminism” (Billington 2018) is embodied in her representation of Marlene’s political standpoint and the oppositional construction of ‘us versus them’ through the phallogocentric linguistic coding in the institution. Her characterisation of Marlene offers a broader indictment of Thatcherite politics and the cult of individualism emerging as a consequence of the breakdown of femininity into diametrically opposed categories: the “superwoman,” the “yuppie” (young urban professional), and the traditional woman. Marlene resembles the ‘superwoman,’ i.e., an individual wrestling with a career, managing a family, owning a business, and earning money, “pursuing an ethic of individualism” (Tycer 21). Throughout the play, Marlene, the self-proclaimed helper and employer of women, demonstrates an inherent hypocrisy and distances herself from the working girl, despite having the same family background. She expresses her disdain for the working class and the very women she intends to help throughout, claiming, “I hate the working class … it doesn’t exist anymore” (Churchill 110). This serves as an attack not just on the women she employs but also on her and Joyce’s pasts and familial heritage.
In contrast, the play showcases how Marlene’s working-class and domestic counterparts struggle to reach the ‘top’ and are disadvantaged because of their connection to family and their lack of the ‘superwoman’ work ethos. In her representation of Marlene’s individualistic ethos, Churchill intentionally mirrors and extenuates the state of Britain under Thatcher, where the cult of the ‘superwoman’ had overtaken as a model of success for Britain and disadvantaged those that did not adhere to it. Marlene’s success further alludes to the contradictions that Thatcher’s victory held for second-wave feminists. In showcasing her relationship with the women who work under her, the play highlights the plight of the working class and the unemployment crisis under Thatcher. Through her critique of these institutions, Churchill signifies the limitations of material success in building solidarity among women. These ideologies pervade the text and facilitate Churchill’s construction of Top Girls Institute as the antithesis of a feminist utopia built on solidarity and ‘sisterhood,’ framing it as an organisation that convinces women to “hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilise their immense strength against themselves” (Cixous 878). Marlene’s bourgeois feminism, reminiscent of Thatcher’s politics, emerges as ideologically contradictory and fundamentally hierarchical, which posits the question and re-imagining of the ideological underpinning of the Top Girls Institute: was Marlene’s intention ever to help women get ahead or merely position herself on top?
Churchill’s writing of the play, according to feminist theatre scholar Sue-Ellen Case, showcases her rootedness within material feminism and symbolises her respective desire to capture the inconsistencies and differentiations that exist within feminism itself (Case 85). Material feminism is defined as a “position [that] critiques the historical and material conditions of class, race. and gender oppression and demands the radical transformation of social structures” (Aston 1995, 9). Consequently, it focuses on an intersectional understanding of the inherent structural displacement caused by the combined influence of class and gender inequality. Case further explains, “rather than assuming that the experiences of women are induced by gender oppression from men and patriarchy … and that all women are ‘sisters, the materialist position underscores the role of class and history in creating the oppression of women” (Case 82). These thematics are dominant throughout the play wherein “not only are all women not sisters, but women in the privileged class[es] actually oppress women in the working class” (Tycer 16). In a critique of capitalist individualism such as Thatcher's, Marlene's quest for success exacerbates the issues of material feminism. Her success comes at the behest of isolating herself from her ‘lower-class’ background. Her relationship with Joyce becomes a direct allegory for the rejection of sisterhood and the traditionally ‘feminine’ role of a mother and a woman that the Thatcherite ‘superwoman’ was required to adhere to, defined as she was by phallogocentric ideals (Cixous 879). Marlene’s success is facilitated by her ambition and the functionality of the “superwoman”; however, it concretises itself through her exploitation and erasure of her sister’s domestic labor. Similar to Karl Marx’s postulation regarding the torn sentimentality of family and the reduction of “the family relation into a mere money relation” (16), within the world of the play, rather than merely the masculine sex and bourgeois productivity’s utilization of women’s labour to advance themselves and keep economic stability in place, here, one sees the evolution of a capitalist system where a ‘sister’ is advancing herself on the back of another. Marlene’s denial of her daughter and what can be termed the economic function of Joyce’s domestic labour in advancing her career showcases a seminal problem within the claim of feminist utopia and within Britain under Thatcher. Joyce suffers a miscarriage due to her exhaustion from caring for Marlene’s child as she claims, “when Angie was six months, I did get pregnant, and I lost it because I was so tired looking after your fucking baby” (Churchill 81). Her sacrifice for Marlene, which prevented Joyce from continuing her education and paved the way for Marlene’s mobility up the Top Girls hierarchy, goes unnoticed and is, instead, criticised by Marlene in her decision to distance herself from her working-class background.
Victoria Bazin highlights the irony which is replete within the play, wherein “in the name of feminism, the ‘top girls’, the women who succeed in the new free-enterprise culture, do so at the expense of their sisters” (Bazin 129). Churchill further continues the effect of ‘capitalist individualism’ and advances on the backs of another through the figure of Angie, her “sister-daughter” (Cixous 879). Marlene’s understanding of her as “useless” becomes a nod at the impact Thatcher’s policies had on the “upcoming generation known as ‘Thatcher’s Children’ … with the majority of them facing economic difficulties without adequate programs to support them” (Tycer 66). Despite Marlene’s promotion and position in a female employment agency, she washes her hands off Angie, similar to the Thatcher government’s lack of provision for the unemployed and helpless working class. Through the feud between the sisters and Marlene’s abandonment of Angie, Churchill alludes thus to two broader conflicts: the first, an attack on bourgeois feminisms that exist without solidarity and community; the second, class antagonisms between the bourgeois and the proletariat, specifically within ’80s Britain.
Cixous, in defining écriture féminine, identifies the new possibilities of womanhood that posit an attack on individualistic politics emerging as a consequence of capitalism. The notion that predicates this conception of writing and being is that “woman un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield. In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history” (Cixous 882). The play begins with a showcase of a ‘transnational’ history as Marlene’s dinner party places her success in conversation with the heritage and histories of the women she invited (Pope Joan, Dull Gret, Isabella, Nijo, Griselda). The act initially seems to represent “a utopian space of femininity … [representing] women resisting their banishment to private spaces” (Adiseshiah 64) and telling their own histories of oppression. However, this image of possible solidarity emerges as a facade as the conversation continues, fragmented with interruptions, people talking over each other, and their differences (of culture, race, and religion) which showcases their preconceived biases regarding one another. Despite the overlapping dialogues, the historical women “remain locked in their own, singular perspectives” (Kritzer 143), i.e., Isabella’s proclamation that “there are some barbaric practices in the East” (Churchill 10), which is one example of how the women are limited in their ability to understand the (O)ther. Even though Marlene has invited them to this fantastical scene, it is for a personal victory—a celebration of her promotion. She attempts to posit this promotion as a collective accomplishment, despite her hyper-individualism, as revealed later in the play during the toast where she claims that “all of us … we’ve all come a long way” (13) even while the other guests “drink a toast” (18) only to Marlene. Thus, Marlene centers herself and her success as the ultimate outcome and victory for all women rather than as part of the sequence of historical progress, paving the way for more women to achieve the same. This essential contradiction perpetuates an understanding of the text, presenting not a feminist utopian impulse but, rather, Churchill’s purposeful indictment of the problems of the status quo.
The absence of a feminist utopia within Top Girls posits a bleak picture of the future of feminism; however, at the level of theatrical practice itself, it offers a vision of an alternate world. It is a world that highlights the necessity of materialist and socialist feminism to ensure an egalitarian future outside the mores of patriarchal and phallogocentric language. Though Top Girls posits an antithesis to feminist utopia and represents characters that oppose écriture féminine, Caryl Churchill’s influential role in British theatre and her work with Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment (in the 1970s and 1980s), one of the first feminist companies in Britain, offers an alternate understanding. Many critics, including Ned Chaillet and Gillian Hanna, see her work after working with the company as an attempt to escape the male canonical tradition and create a feminist aesthetic (Aston 1995, 26). In an interview with Lizbeth Goodman, Churchill cites the transformative impact her experience with Monstrous Regiment had on her, leaving her "stimulated by the discovery of shared ideas and the enormous energy and feeling of possibilities" (Goodman 93). The creation of the ‘feminist aesthetic’ subsequently drew on re-imagining theatrical practices. Though Top Girls (1982) represents this intention, it began much earlier, for example, with the play Vinegar Tom, written and performed in 1976 for Monstrous Regiment. It contains contemporary songs performed between scenes, resulting in a deliberate mixing of styles and a departure from standard theatrical modes. The choice helps create a sense of estrangement within the audience, a common trope in her plays; Lisa Merrill additionally highlights this play’s contribution to breaking from patriarchal forms of theatre (Merril 81). Working with the feminist and socialist collective helped facilitate Churchill’s endeavor to fracture masculine and phallogocentric forms of writing and develop her voice as a feminist writer and, effectively, as a model for women’s writing. Similar to the phallogocentric linguistics dominant in the Top Girls Institute, the meta-narrative of theatre appears to be a predominantly male-dominated discourse. The origin point of the masculine and what Aston terms “[the] glorif[ication of] the phallus’ centre stage” (Aston 1997, 6) can be seen as rooted in the primacy of Aritotlean ideas of drama and posit the theatrical stage as composed of men. Amelia Howe Krtizer analyses the patriarchal grounding of theatre in Aristotle’s model, stating that “from a socialist-feminist standpoint, the Aristotelian ideal can be seen as confirming patriarchal ideology and the power of traditional elites, as well as validating a phallic paradigm of creativity” (Kritzer 2). Churchill’s focus on estrangement, her artistic praxis, and her collaboration with feminist collectives, thus, materialise her socio-political beliefs and function as a powerful rupture in the dominant phallogocentric theatrical discourse which results in a radical transformation of cultural hegemony by deconstructing the social creation of “woman” as a class and category. What emerges thus is the departure from ‘male writing’ and possibilities for a utopic future at the heart of theatrical practice.
Though Monstrous Regiment had a seminal influence on Churchill’s writing, her feminist praxis had begun much earlier in her literary career. Her earlier work represents a similar strand of possibility for a feminist aesthetic at a practical level and as a “springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures” (Cixous 879). These plays, whether performed on the radio or at a theatre, are replete with her feminist ideologues, and focus on the themes of social identity, gender politics, and systems of authority. Churchill’s radio dramas, produced in the early days of her literary career, are where she “first learned to empower audiences," using language and sound to engage their imagination and enable her listeners to see the action (Kritzer 17). The radio medium is additionally significant, considering its transformative potential both for her position as a writer and for the development of feminist self-consciousness in her audience. As a writer, radio allowed her to continue writing while dealing with the artistic isolation and the physical and emotional demands of family life (Aston 1997 4), a common struggle many women face. The accessibility of radio to women, specifically home-makers, resulted in her plays reaching mass audiences and became a way for women to “confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence” (Cixous 881). The visualisation of the feminine, the political nature of her works, and their reach resulted in an alternative to the dominant discourse of the “feminine mystique” (Friedan 2) Churchill explains her politicisation emerged from “ being ... a wife ... at home with small children" and that it became more radical when she and her husband decided they could no longer "shore up a capitalistic system [they] didn't believe in" (Itzen 279). If women had always functioned “within” the discourse of man prior to écriture féminine (884), as Cixous states, in that case, Churchill’s artistic practices become an alternate medium for women to speak, be seen, and exist for themselves.
Similarly, within the Cixousian framework, one understands that “it is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded—which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallogocentric system” (Cixous 883). Perhaps Churchill then is the “breaker of automatisms … the peripheral figure that no authority can ever subjugate” (Cixous 883) wherein the existence and seminal role that Churchill’s plays have played within British and feminist theatre dramaturgy could embody a paramount attack on the tradition of phallogocentric writing. The experimental lens she proffers in her writing toys with “the conventions of form, time, narrative, structure, language and dialogue” (Tycer 6) and expands the boundaries of the literary sphere and conventions of style, creating in effect an “insurgent language” (Cixous 880). Her work, influenced by her collaborations with the two theatre companies, took on a freer form, wherein, rather than follow a chronological act play structure, her plays began to take the shape of episodic theatrical exposition as seen in Top Girls. Her dramaturgy is characterized by nonlinear storytelling and a departure from the conventions of realism wherein these techniques are manipulated in her works to “highlight the social and economic conditions which govern and restrict human possibility. Sometimes a character is written so as to be portrayed by multiple actors (as in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Cloud Nine), or the same actor is expected to play several different roles (as in Top Girls and Cloud Nine)” (Merill 19). These thematic and formative breaks from ‘conventional’ archetypes of writing pursue the construction of an écriture féminine even as she constructs an anti-utopia within the play. The significance of Churchill’s theatrical practices and the play's content contribute to this understanding. Dimple Godiwala argues that the all-female production meant that “the writing of Top Girls was the single most conscious intervention that British feminist dramaturgy was to make on the patriarchal mode of dramatic discourse” (qtd in Tycer 3). This, ultimately, “gestures towards a feminist utopian practice, locating women at the center of production and representation” (Adiseshiah 63). Her exploration of complex issues of femininity and social consciousness throughout the play ends with no clear ‘heroes,’ suggesting instead that Churchill “energizes the process of open-ended questioning that empowers audiences to ask further questions and seek satisfactory answers in the world outside the theatre” (Kritzer 1). Top Girls, and more broadly, Churchill’s dramaturgy, emerge as effective models for écriture féminine and socially conscious feminist theatre translated into praxis where, through their visualisation, the audience is compelled to carry the political message into a larger cultural context. According to Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, her plays reveal “new worlds beyond and beneath the surface of ordinary life” (294).
Caryl Churchill, as a feminist and socialist playwright, presents an attack on the system of the phallogocentric and logocentric tradition of masculine writing through her experimentations in writing and form. Her construction of a feminine world within the play responds to the differences emerging under the feminist movement and attacks the homogeneity with which women and female writers are portrayed in dominant media-forms. Subsequently, her construction of a purposefully absent feminist utopia within Top Girls captures and marks the differences rooted within women that hinder collective solidarity even as she posits her own attack on a masculine system. Churchill’s critical lens presents a fractured picture of sisterhood and her new theatrical practice highlights the significance of transnational and transhistorical readings of feminism. Much like Cixous’s, Churchill’s work emphasizes that women are at the intersections of a new ‘history,’ a history that goes beyond masculine imagination and instead captures, inherently, a liberation of ‘woman’ from all oppressions. Churchill, thus, does not deny the potential for sisterhood, écriture féminine, and a utopian world; rather, she suggests their innumerable possibilities beyond the social conditions of the play as she forces interactions between women from Japan, the Vatican, and various other locations in Europe with the ‘superwoman’ of Thatcher’s England. These interactions showcase two aspects of the feminist utopia. First, the significant ideological and power differences between these women. Second, the multiplicity of desires between them—women working to save themselves, women saving their husbands, women acquiescing, women destroying—within their own patriarchal constrictions. Churchill, thus, ultimately responds to a new call for sisterhood, one that recognises that women across social and spatial borders need to work for and struggle towards a unified sisterhood.
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