The Future is Female?: Griselda, Top Girls, and Rethinking Feminist Subjectivity

Lately I’ve been rereading Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) because I’ve recently finished a book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare.[1] In flipping back through my argument, the figure of “patient Griselda” remains something of an enigma. Throughout much of my academic life as a feminist medievalist, I regarded Griselda, as I briefly characterized Churchill’s representation, as “patriarchal history’s doormat.”[2] When Marlene convenes a dinner-party populated by remarkable women from history, including Isabella Bird, the Lady Nijo, Pope Joan and Dull Gret from the painting Dulle Griet (Peter Breughel the Elder, 1563),[3] Griselda seems distant, possibly aloof, and certainly outside this circle of women who gather to celebrate Marlene’s promotion as Director of “Top Girls Employment Agency.” Griselda’s arrival is something of a party-killer: although she claims “Griselda’s life is like a fairy-story, except it starts with marrying the prince” (I, 85), Marlene ultimately cannot abide the details of Griselda’s narrative.[4] When Griselda explains that the Marquis was pressured to marry in order to secure an heir, Marlene interrupts, “I don’t think Walter wanted to get married” (I, 85). When Griselda recalls Walter’s infamous demand for absolute obedience, Marlene interjects, “That’s when you should have suspected” (I, 86). To Griselda’s claim that Walter “was normal, he was very kind” (I, 86), Marlene counters, “But Griselda, come on, he took your baby” (I, 86), then concludes, “I don’t think Walter likes women” (I, 87). And finally, when Griselda avers, “It was Walter’s child to do what he liked with,” Marlene declares, “Walter was bonkers” before she loses all patience, “I can’t stand this. I’m going for a pee” (I, 87).

Throughout this exchange, Churchill captures the disquiet that Griselda’s placid obedience evokes. Why doesn’t she protest, or at least register, the oppression that Walter inflicts? If she loves her children, as she maintains, how could she allow them to be sacrificed on account of a promise she made to Walter? Her justification, “It was always easy because I always knew I would do what he said,” paired with her defenses of her husband, “It was hard for him too” (I, 87), and “He suffered so much all those years” (I,90), identifies her as a woman who internalized the patriarchal abuses that men use to perpetuate their dominance over women. When Marlene demands, “Weren’t you angry? What did you do?” (I, 90), she voices a common frustration with Griselda’s patience. Tellingly, the other women’s reactions show how upsetting her story is: Lady Nijo weeps, Joan babbles in Latin, Isabella recounts her rejection of traditional femininity, and Gret details the surreal assault on hell that she leads in Dulle Griet. When Marlene remarks, “You really are exceptional, Griselda,” it is because her patience affronts all notions of how women gain, maintain, or navigate power in a man’s world.

It is also because her story lays bare women’s fundamental and continuing dispossession within a patriarchal tradition, never mind the extremes they are willing to endure in order to survive or thrive in a world made by and for men. To be sure, modern readers of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale still object to Griselda’s vow of submission, her sacrifice of her children, and her reconciliation with Walter.[5] Her actions arise not, or not simply, because she is a moral monster, as some readers would have it. Rather, and as I argue elsewhere, her actions follow because Chaucer reworks Petrarch’s humanist fable to challenge our ideas of the human itself.[6] Griselda’s relentless submission, rather than specifying one woman’s individual ethical limitations, shows how inhospitable modern notions of subjectivity remain towards a version of humanity that is vulnerable, open, and responsive to others.

We don’t like the unglorified version of subjectivity that Griselda models—in Churchill or in Chaucer. But that’s because we’ve forgotten the Griseldas that came between medieval and postmodern renderings of her character. My new book, The Matter of Virtue (2019), examines a number of early modern Griselda narratives, which, despite their variety, show the dignity, strength, and virtue of Griselda’s endurance.[7] Similar to the representations in these early dramas, Churchill’s Griselda is deeply disturbing. Furthermore, and in ways that early modern Griseldas equally demonstrate, Churchill’s play reveals what women are expected to sacrifice for men. Marlene seeks to get ahead in a man’s world, yet her individuality, her aggression, and her centeredness are all derived, in ways that she adopts quite self-consciously, from what she perceives as men’s strategies for professional success. Three decades before Sheryl Sandberg advised ambitious women to Lean In (2013), Churchill dramatizes the high price women pay to succeed in a patriarchal domain.[8]

What early and recent renderings of Griselda show most pointedly, though, is that the very selfhood we continue to prize is a model of privileged masculinity. Our notions of subjectivity—how selves are and should be constituted in society—are designed to empower men. When Marlene seeks to fashion herself as a thriving professional, the selfhood she seeks to take up is one that men have successfully occupied at least since Chaucer’s day. Now of course, one point of Churchill’s play is to illustrate how problematic it is that women have not been able to occupy the same cultural space as men—in contrast to figures like Griselda, and the Lady Nijo, there is every reason to wish that Gret might be successful in her campaign to storm Breughel’s rendering of hell. Yet, arising as it does in the context of a Thatcherite UK, in which the “Iron Lady” claimed in 1982, “The battle for women's rights has been largely won,” Churchill’s Top Girls reveals the need for a broader structural remaking.[9] As I believe the Griselda narrative demonstrates—particularly in its earlier English renderings—the structure that is most in need of remaking is subjectivity itself.

Churchill is interested in class as much as gender, and, in the later—oft overlooked—two acts of her play, it becomes clear that Marlene’s striver identity is forged at the expense of all bonds, familial but also communal. In this way, I maintain, she is not so different from Griselda: both abandon maternal ties in some sense. Marlene pretended to be the girl’s aunt, and abandoned all maternal ties in an effort to maximize her personal desires and actualize her personal goals.[10] If Marlene’s choice sounds monstrous, it is not too far removed from Griselda’s willingness to abandon her children, which, as political theorist Bonnie Honig notes, closely parallels men’s willingness in heroic tales to abandon all personal connections—including those to children.[11] Churchill’s play defies any impulse to shackle women to motherhood, refusing to blame Marlene for seeking her own happiness above that of her daughter. In the structure as it stands, there’s no way that Marlene could succeed otherwise.

Yet Angie is definitely a pitiable character, and Joyce certainly blames Marlene for her decisions: “I don’t know how you could leave your own child” (III,149). Joyce is the girl’s aunt, and she has taken on motherhood simply because, as she puts it “she’s my child” (III, 151). Joyce makes visible the tangible, continual labor involved in caring for family, and she presents Marlene’s career orientation as a class betrayal: “Look, you’ve left, you’ve gone away, / we can do without you” (III, 148); and then, later: “Jealous of what you’ve done, you’re ashamed of me if I came to your office, your smart friends, wouldn’t you, I’m ashamed of you, think of nothing but yourself, you’ve got on, nothing’s changed for most people / has it?” (III, 156). With Joyce’s trenchant critique of Marlene, it becomes clear that it is not just problematic for women to seek to succeed within patriarchy; the model of selfhood that patriarchy promotes—one in which subservient others are asked and/or forced to perform the daily labors of emotional and physical care—is itself problematic. Joyce’s selfhood is in keeping with that outlined for women within patriarchy. As feminist philosopher Kate Manne details, she is expected to expend “attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration, and nurturing.”[12] Yet the problem with her subjectivity is not these qualities in themselves; it is, as her weary disgust indicates, that such qualities have been forced upon her in service to another, more enabled ideal of selfhood. Joyce affirms that she is otherwise content with her decisions. It is Marlene’s presumptive exploitation that fills her with anger, contempt, and derision.

Joyce’s critique, then, is both the most forward- and backward-looking aspect of Churchill’s brilliant play. Her indictment of Marlene’s willingness to abandon her and Angie resonates with more recent interventions in the feminist politics of care: as scholars from Joan Tronto to María Puig de la Bellacasa have shown, the work of care is frequently shouldered by women, and it is even more frequently rendered invisible in a culture that values modes of productivity traditionally associated with men.[13] Joyce stands up for the labor that she has taken on, but she does not do so in a way that sentimentalizes women’s association with motherhood, or with care work more generally: “Listen when Angie was six months I did get pregnant and I lost it because I was so tired looking after your fucking baby / because she cried so much…” (III, 151). The work she has done has been work—difficult, demanding, and frequently ungratifying. There is no triumphant promise at the end of her labors, either. Joyce will reap no accolades for Angie’s unexceptional upbringing. She simply shows up and does the work—work that is necessary for the everyday functioning of today’s success-obsessed society.

Not only does Churchill suggest the need for society’s renovation—for a restructuring that would recognize and rebalance the labors that Joyce assumes—she does so in a way that recalls Griselda’s disturbing figure. Joyce knows that Thatcher’s individualist society needs her labor to function, and she knows that as long as a selfhood defined by dominance and governance is equated with success, her way of life will never be recognized as valuable. Her acceptance recalls that of Griselda, who warns Walter not to treat his new bride in the way that he has “tested” her: “O thing biseke I how, and warne also / That ye ne prikke with no tormentynge / This tendre mayden, as ye han doon mo.”[14] Griselda knows she’s been made into patriarchal history’s doormat, and early modern Griselda stories are far better about showing her sophistication and sacrifice in the face of Walter’s tyranny.[15] Even in Chaucer, however, the problematic nature of her subjectivity becomes clear.

The difference Griselda’s model of selfhood makes, Chaucer shows, is that it uncovers the abuse inherent to a model of subjectivity designed to privilege elite men.[16] In the face of Griselda’s unwavering submission, Walter’s aggression looks cruel, even monstrous. Similarly, in the face of Joyce’s trenchant care, we see how abusive Marlene has been to all others, maybe including herself. When she avers, “I believe in the individual” (III, 155), it is a sorry triumph. By giving space to Joyce’s rival organization of selfhood, Churchill’s play makes room for a new version of subjectivity, one based on women’s vulnerability rather than men’s empowerment. Rather than framing qualities of attention or nurturing as those she has been forced to take on, Joyce embraces care as a way of defining herself and remaking her world.

Yet, and in ways that the recent revival of Top Girls at the National Theater makes evident, it is easy to ignore this alternative subjectivity.[17] Even though Joyce has more ethical heft, the play’s staging focuses on Marlene’s response to her sister’s rejection. Similarly, Chaucer critics remain concerned with Walter’s reform, with whether Griselda’s patience brings him to see her or himself differently. It is only with early modern representations, as I argue in The Matter of Virtue, that Griselda takes center stage. Rather than focusing on whether Marlene might be “softened” by Joyce’s critique, and whether her encounter with Angie at the play’s close might usher in a new or different way of viewing the young woman, I believe Churchill directs attention to the uncompromising critique of Joyce’s exit. In so doing, Churchill uncovers the radical potential of the Griselda story, and confronts us with our continued fascination with a model of selfhood that, as Marlene describes it, “For me / I think I’m going up up up” (III, 154).

[1] Holly A. Crocker, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019):

[2] Ibid., 302, n. 141.


[4] All quotations, hereafter cited parenthetically with reference to Act and page number, are taken from Caryl Churchill, Top Girls, ed. Sophie Bush (London: Bloomsbury, 1991).

[5]Kate Koppelman, “Motherhood Interrupted: Borders, Bodies, and Chaucer’s Griselda,” insightfully connects these objections to the recent child-separation crisis at the U.S. border:

[6] “Griselda and the Problem of the Human,” Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Ed. Frank Grady, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

[7] Matter of Virtue, 200-221.

[8] Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013).

[9] Margaret Thatcher, Interview, 1982: Joyce’s reaction to Marlene’s avowed support for Thatcher is telling: “What good’s first woman if it’s her? I suppose you’d have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina. / Great adventures” (III, 155).

[10] At present, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones are collaborating on the new series, Run, recently greenlighted by HBO, which, “is about a young mum who, ‘tired and uninspired by her life,’ walks away from her kids”:

[11] Bonnie Honig, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 17.

[12] Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 22.

[13] Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (New York: Routledge, 1993); María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 2017.

[14] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson, 2nd. Ed. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987), IV.1037-39.

[15] As I argue, this willingness to highlight Griselda’s sacrifice and sophistication is not universal. For instance, the late sixteenth-century play, The Pleasant Comodie of Patient Grissil (ca.1599), by Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, and William Haughton (which was in direct competition with Taming of the Shrew), seeks to contain Griselda’s ethical powers.

[16] I am currently developing a book project, provisionally titled Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature, which considers Chaucer’s Griselda as it relates to other experiments in “feminist subjectivity” in Chaucer, Hoccleve, Kempe, Langland, and the Pearl-poet.

[17] This revival ran at the National Theatre in London from March 26-July 20, 2019: For a representative review, see:

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