Top Girls in 2012

Have you been watching ‘Borgen’? Some are calling it the new West Wing.  I think it’s even better – because of the strong female Prime Minster at the centre of the drama and the way the show examines the political process, the relationship between media and politics but most importantly – the way politics leaves little room or energy for family life.  By the end of series 1 Birgitte Nyborg appears to have grown into her leadership role, but is also utterly sleep-deprived, separated from her husband and realises that her children are paying a price for her job.

Ten days ago I also went to see ‘Top Girls’, the 1982 play by Caryl Churchill.  It examines many of the same issues – but in a different time period.  One of the key concerns of the play is to emphasize the continuing arc of violence and abuse women experience throughout history – illustrated in the first Act by the quite bizarre dinner party Marlene (the main character) has organised to which she has invited real and fictious female heroines from the past.  A second core theme of the play is to explore the price women have to pay for wanting a career.

At the same time I have been reading the very accessible ‘Making Modern Mothers’ . This again, explores the ways women can combine working, even having a career, and being a parent.  The various case studies of first-time mothers from across the social and age spectrum highlight the many ways motherhood is being done today.

These recent cultural sources of stimulation have to be set in the context of the growing evidence being publicized by campaigning organisations such as the Fawcett Society about the dire implications of current government policy on large groups of women and also therefore on the families they support and care for – in terms of employment, income and women’s abilities to make the various contributions to society they make. 

The making of modern motherhood and the degree to which we can be ‘top girls’ in 2012 continues to confront me – not just in the media and through these recent cultural highlights – but day-to-day, as I try to find ways of being a working mother, progress my career and make other contributions to society.  Just thinking about my local community, where I know so many intelligent, hard-working, generous women – I find myself continually getting angry that usually they are the ones who bear the brunt of the burden of managing their domestic spheres.  A number of my friends have said to me at one point or another – ‘I never thought I would end up like a 1950s housewife!’  And of course to some extent their situations are different – they are earning money or re-training to find new careers that will enable them to pick up their children from school but also find work that stimulates them.  However, they, on the whole, are the ones worrying about who will look after the children during the school holidays and take time off work to attend the school Assembly. They are the ones putting on a load of washing at 11pm, and making sure there is food in the house. 

Thirty years on from the world of Churchill’s Top Girls and fifty to sixty years on from the position of women represented in TV series like ‘Mad Men’ – women’s situations are different, many would argue improved, but not enough!  Not only do we need to continue to get angry about this and make our voices heard – but we also need to push for the issue of gender equality to be discussed in schools, across various curriculum areas.  The GEA made an important contribution to the English Government’s consultation on Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) in November, but those of us working in schools (as teachers, teaching assistants, youth and play workers, Governors and researchers) need to continue pushing for the need for this work so we can raise the awareness of our young men and women and find ways of creating spaces within schools where gender equality can even be imagined as a possibility.

Claire Maxwell, GEA Executive and Institute of Education, University of London


Leave a Reply