It is Monday morning at the Top Girls Employment Agency. Win and Nell arrive for work. Nell prepares coffee while Win talks about her weekend visiting her lover’s rose garden while his was wife away visiting her mother. Nell remarks that Marlene is late, and suggests she’s been celebrating all weekend. They also observe that one of their other coworkers, Howard, isn’t in yet; Win says he’s “really cut up” about Marlene’s promotion, but suggests he’ll move on to a new company soon enough. Nell says she wouldn’t mind moving on herself. Win presses her for more details, asking if she has another job lined up. Nell says there’s nothing definite, though she’s been getting a lot of inquiries—no one can afford her, though. She is reluctant to stay on at Top Girls, as there’s “not a lot of room upward;” Win remarks that Marlene has “filled it up.”
Win and Nell are not cruel women, though they are gossips and seem to be more than a little self-absorbed. They are happy enough for Marlene’s success, but worry that Marlene’s triumph means that there is no room for them at the “top.” Win and Nell clearly see each other as competition, and each is focused on assuring that she is getting the most out of any given job at any given moment.
Win and Nell discuss some of the people they’ve placed over the last couple weeks, what they each did over the weekend, and what’s on television lately. Nell reveals that her boyfriend asked her to marry him “again,” but she told him she refuses to “play house.” Win says Nell could get married and go on working; Nell retorts that she could go on working and not get married.
Nell and Win clearly both have contempt for real romance or commitment—they are too concerned with their own careers to be waylaid by marriage or any serious relationship with a man.
Marlene walks in and greets Win and Nell. They cheer, whistle, and whoop, welcoming her. They tease her for being late now that she’s the “top executive.” Win says she’s delighted about the promotion; Nell comments that Howard’s “looking sick” over it. Win retorts that Howard actually is sick, with ulcers and a bad heart. Nell asks if Howard will stop drinking, smoking, and working; Win says he’ll probably just stop working. Marlene says she’s going to take some meetings with another employee’s interviewees; they’ve been piling up while the other woman is away. Nell says she’s looked through the files, and they consist of “half a dozen little girls.”
Win and Nell—and indeed Marlene—seem to delight in Howard’s misery over Marlene’s promotion, and wonder if Marlene’s success will actually defeat the man. When the conversation turns to business, Nell exhibits a condescending attitude towards the women that they are supposed to help, lift up, and encourage. Win, Nell, and Marlene’s collective desire for the failure of others is gender nonspecific.
Win tells Marlene that she spent the weekend at her lover’s house; she says she had to lie down in the back of the car so his neighbors wouldn’t see her going in. Nell remarks that she’ll “tell the wife”—maybe the wife will leave Win’s lover, and Win will get to have the rose garden she so admires. Win protests, saying the minute it’s not a secret, the affair will end. Nell asks why Win’s pursuing it, then; Win says she’s doing it for a “bit of fun.”
Win, like Nell, is dabbling in romance but avoiding a situation that requires either her full attention or a genuine commitment.
Nell tells Marlene that soon Marlene will be upstairs, watching over the rest of them. Marlene asks if Nell feels badly about it; Nell answers that she doesn’t like coming in second. Marlene agrees that no one does. Win admits that the two of them would rather Marlene get promoted than Howard, and tells Marlene she’s glad for her. She asks Nell if she is, too, and Nell agrees that Marlene’s promotion is “aces.”
Though Win and Nell do admit to a bit of jealousy in this passage, they also admit that they stand behind Marlene—they would rather she succeed than a man.
Win goes into an adjacent room to interview Louise, a woman in her early forties who has been at the same job for twenty-one years. Despite her long tenure at the company, she feels it’s time to move on. Win warns her that her age is a “handicap,” though her experience should count in her favor. Win asks if there is any secret reason why Louise is leaving, poking around to see if Louise has had “personality clashes” with any coworkers, but Louise insists she gets along well with everyone in the office. Win asks if it’s the money which is making Louise move on, but Louise says it’s not so much the money.
Louise tells Win that she has “lived for [the] company,” and has sacrificed her social life to work late in the evenings. She has had management status for over a decade, and has built up her department—but she herself has not been able to advance. She has trained young men who have gone on to higher things, while no one at the company notices her own hard work. She wants to leave the company and make her superiors sorry to lose her—but she says that even if they offer her more money and try to get her to stay, she will refuse. Win asks if Louise is the only woman at the company—Louise says apart from the secretaries and assistants, she is. She feels she “pass[es] as a man at work,” and does not particularly enjoy working with other women.
Louise is clearly in pain, having watched her life go by in service to others’ successes while never experiencing any of her own. Louise’s story reveals the insidious ways in which the corporate world overlooks and purposefully discounts women, and Louise’s desire for relocation is motivated mostly by spite and an need to retaliate, in whatever way she can, against such treatment at last.
Win warns Louise that in many interviews she’ll be competing against younger men—but there are fields that are easier for women, such as a cosmetics company Win knows of. Win warns Louise that she’d have to take a pay cut at the cosmetics company, but Louise says what’s most important is for her to get away from her old job.
Louise doesn’t care how much money she’s making—she just wants to make a point about how invaluable she was to her old company, and how wrong they have been in overlooking her and preventing from achieving the success she deserves.
In the main office, Angie arrives to visit Marlene. Marlene is surprised to see Angie, and asks how she got past the receptionist; Angie says she just walked right in. Marlene asks if Joyce is with her; Angie replies that Joyce is at home. Marlene asks if Angie is here on a school trip, but Angie informs Marlene she’s left school. When Marlene asks Angie if she’s been shopping or sightseeing, Angie tells her that she came here just to see Marlene.
Angie has one goal in mind for this trip, and it is to get close to Marlene. Given Angie’s previous promise to kill her mother contrasted against her clear adoration of Marlene, it seems that Marlene is not, after all, the “mother” she intends to kill.
Marlene tells Angie that she has, unfortunately, picked a day when Marlene is quite busy. She tells Angie that if it were any other day, she’d take her out for lunch and shopping. She asks Angie when she has to go back; Angie says she’s staying the night. Marlene asks if Angie wants Marlene to put her up for the night, and Angie says she’d like that. Marlene wonders aloud why Joyce wouldn’t have called to let her know Angie was coming, but concedes that it’s “like her” not to.
It’s unclear whether Marlene would devote a day’s worth of attention to Angie even if she could—her promises to her niece seem to go against her individualistic, self-absorbed patterns of behavior.
Angie admires Marlene’s “lovely” office, but Marlene brags that she’ll soon be moving to a new office even nicer than this one. Angie asks to see it; Marlene says that they can’t go in, as there’s someone else in there now; but at the end of next week, he’ll be leaving, and Marlene will be taking over his job. Angie asks Marlene if she’s going to be in charge, and Marlene says she will be. Angie says she always knew Marlene would be in charge of everything. Marlene concedes that she won’t be in charge of everything, exactly, but Angie insists Marlene will be.
In this moment, Angie admires Marlene’s life of luxury and the trappings of her success. When Angie asks if Marlene is in charge of everything, though, Marlene is forced to admit that she isn’t—and is perhaps forced to reckon with the fact that maybe, despite all her best efforts, she never will be due to the inherent constraints of success in a patriarchal society.
Angie asks if she can see the office next week—Marlene asks Angie if she has to go back home, but Angie says she doesn’t. Marlene asks Angie why not, but Angie tells her not to worry about it. Marlene asks Angie if Joyce knows where Angie is, and Angie again tells Marlene not to worry about it. Marlene asks Angie how long she’s planning on staying with her. Angie does not answer, but instead tells Marlene that the last time Marlene came to visit Angie and Joyce, one year ago, was “the best day of [Angie’s] whole life.” Marlene again asks Angie how long she’s going to stay; Angie asks Marlene if she doesn’t want her around, and says she won’t stay if Marlene doesn’t want her. Marlene says it’s fine if Angie stays, and tells her not to get upset. Once more, Angie tells Marlene, “Don’t worry about it.”
In this passage, Marlene attempts to investigate Angie’s coy and slightly strange behavior—but to no avail. As soon as Angie picks up on the fact that Marlene might not want her, she becomes upset, shifting the focus from whatever has happened at home with Joyce to Marlene’s need to talk Angie down from the edge of a fit. Her secrecy about Joyce and her seeming disregard for her mother’s concern is strange, and lets Marlene know that perhaps something is wrong back home. Given Angie’s previously stated desire to kill her mother, her shiftiness where questions about Joyce are concerned is most worrisome to the audience.
A woman lets herself into Marlene’s office. She apologizes for showing up unannounced, but insists she has to talk to Marlene right away. Marlene tells the woman she’s busy, but the woman interrupts her. She introduces herself as Rosemary—Howard’s wife. Marlene apologizes for not remembering Mrs. Kidd, as the women met some time ago. Marlene tells Mrs. Kidd that Howard should be in his office, but Mrs. Kidd says he isn’t—it’s not Howard she has come to see, but Marlene. She asks for just a minute or two of Marlene’s time, as she must discuss with her “a matter of some urgency.” Marlene agrees to hear Mrs. Kidd out.
Marlene is willing to give Mrs. Kidd the benefit of the doubt, in spite of Marlene’s busy schedule and the fact that Angie has come for an unexpected visit. Marlene is a shrewd businesswoman, and surely doesn’t enter into any interaction unless it either benefits her personally or piques her interest—perhaps she is hoping that this conversation with Mrs. Kidd will do both.
Mrs. Kidd tells Marlene that Howard has stayed home today—he is in “a state of shock about what’s happened.” When Marlene asks Mrs. Kidd to elaborate, the woman says she’s referring to Marlene’s promotion. As a result of Marlene securing the promotion over Howard, Howard hasn’t slept in three nights. Marlene suggests Mrs. Kidd give Howard sleeping pills, and assures her he’ll bounce back soon. Mrs. Kidd worries aloud to Marlene about what “working for a woman” will do to Howard. Marlene says Howard will just have to get over it. Mrs. Kidd replies that it is she who has to bear the brunt of Howard’s despair—she has put her husband first every step of the way, and now he has been slighted for the sake of another woman’s glory.
Mrs. Kidd’s pleas to Marlene seem so over-the-top as to be ridiculous, but as the conversation goes on, it becomes clear that Howard and Mrs. Kidd do truly blame Marlene for Howard’s failure. Howard’s ego is so bruised by the fact that he has been passed over for a promotion, which was then given to a woman, that he has made himself physically ill, and literally cannot imagine returning to work in an environment in which he is even in title alone beholden to a woman.
Marlene says she’s sorry Howard’s been taking out his disappointment out on his wife—Howard “really is a shit.” Mrs. Kidd replies that Howard has a family to support. Marlene wants to know if Mrs. Kidd is suggesting she give up the job to Howard—Mrs. Kidd says only that if Marlene were “unavailable after all for some reason,” Howard would be “natural second choice.” Mrs. Kidd asks Marlene not to tell Howard that she came to see Marlene. Marlene tries to get Mrs. Kidd to leave, but Mrs. Kidd keeps going, saying how things are “not that easy” for a “man of Howard’s age.” She calls Marlene a “ballbreaker,” and warns her that she’ll end up “miserable and lonely.” Marlene tells Mrs. Kidd to piss off, and then Mrs. Kidd at last leaves.
When Mrs. Kidd realizes that her method of coercion and suggestion is not going to work, she turns on Marlene, calling her horrible names and blaming her outright for Howard’s failure. Mrs. Kidd represents the scourge of internalized misogyny, and the ways in which it forces women to see other women only as competitors or traitors.
Angie tells Marlene that how she handled Mrs. Kidd was “wonderful.” Marlene, exhausted, tells Angie that she has some work to do, and asks if Angie can come back later. Angie insists that she wants to stay in Marlene’s office—it is “where [she] most want[s] to be in the world.” Marlene leaves Angie in her office, and goes off to do some work.
Marlene seems anxious to get away from Angie for a bit, but for Angie, there is nowhere she would rather be than smack dab in the middle of Marlene’s world.
In another part of the office, Nell interviews a young woman named Shona. Shona is, according to her paperwork, twenty-nine years old and earning well at her job. She answers Nell’s questions vaguely—she wants a change of both product and area, and, at Nell’s suggestion, says she’d be open to management status, but also expresses a desire to remain on the road as a salesgirl. Nell asks her how many sales calls she makes a day, and Shona answers six; when Nell asks how many of those are successful, she answers six again, but when Nell doubts her, she amends her answer to four. Nell asks if Shona is good at closing deals, and explains that potential employers often worry that women in particular are too “nice” to “push through to a closing situation.”
When Nell tells Shona that potential employers don’t want “nice” women, Churchill is examining how much women have been forced to sacrifice basic elements not just of femininity, but of humanity in general, in order to seem “strong enough” to participate in the male-dominated arena of business, finance, and other branches of the corporate world.
Based on Shona’s answers and resume, Nell tells her she’d be suited for a high-profile job in video systems making a large salary. Nell then asks Shona to tell her a little bit more about herself, but Shona clams up. When Nell asks her to describe her present job, Shona talks about driving around in her Porsche, selling “electric things” across the countryside. She rambles and goes off on tangents, and talks about the expensive hotels she stays in at on her company’s expense account. Nell realizes that Shona is lying about everything—she has never held a job in her entire life.
It is clear that Shona is so desperate to enter the workforce and succeed within the bounds of the patriarchy that she has fabricated an entire life for herself—a life that she believes will attract the right kind of attention and position her on a path to success. This demonstrates how cutthroat the world has become for women, and how often women are forced to change themselves to have even the slightest chance at success.
In the main office, Angie has sat herself down in Win’s chair. Win introduces herself, and offers Angie some food, but Angie declines. Angie asks Win how long she’s worked at Top Girls, and Win says she was headhunted from another office some time ago. Angie asks Win if she thinks Angie could work here—Win asks what skills she has. Angie admits she cannot type and does not have very impressive school marks.
Angie wants to work at Top Girls presumably because she wants to both get closer to and emulate Marlene. Angie, however, is unprepared to enter the workforce, and very far removed from Marlene’s world.
Angie asks Win if she went to school, and Win begins telling Angie the story of her life. She describes how she has always been naturally talented at whatever job she undertakes, and has been “unpopular” all her life for this reason. She went to work in California, and then Mexico, to escape the “slow” atmosphere of England, but then “went bonkers for a bit” and had to enter psychiatric care. She married, but her husband is in prison, and she hardly ever sees him. She has found peace working at Top Girls, though, because she is able to offer her clients “hope.”
Win’s emotional rollercoaster of a success story leaves Angie physically exhausted. Win arrived at her current success via an unlikely route, but seems genuinely grateful for her job at Top Girls, and made happy by the chance she gets to offer women like her younger self—or perhaps like Angie—the chance to succeed.
Nell comes into the office, and points out that Angie has fallen asleep. Nell asks who Angie is, and Win tells her she is Marlene’s niece. Nell comments that Marlene never talks about her family, and then asks Win if she heard that Howard had a heart attack. Win suggests they send flowers to the hospital. Marlene comes in, and Win asks if Marlene’s heard the news; she calls Howard a “poor sod.” Win tells Marlene that Angie wants to come work at Top Girls; Marlene says Angie could only ever be a packer in a grocery store. Win points out that Angie’s a “nice kid,” but Marlene replies that Angie is a little stupid, and a little odd. Win says that Angie thinks Marlene is “wonderful.” Marlene replies flatly that Angie is “not going to make it.”
This moment shows Marlene’s utter lack of compassion for and interest in anyone other than herself. Angie clearly loves Marlene, and wants to be just like her. However, rather than extending tenderness, empathy, or help to Angie, Marlene dismisses her as stupid and strange, predicting that the girl—who is only sixteen, with so much life ahead of her still—will amount to nothing. Marlene’s job has trained her to see people—women especially—only in terms of what they can achieve rather than what they are actually like, and this does not bode well for her relationship with Angie.