Beth Cortese



To commemorate the centenary of World War One and the efforts of women who worked in munitions factories (known as munitionettes or canaries), I wrote a play entitled ‘Canary in a Coal Mine.’ The play is split between scenes set in World War One and scenes set in a dystopian matriarchal future in 2033. The title comes from an expression which refers to caged canaries taken into mines to warn miners of harmful gases. I felt it was a fitting title for the piece because Karen, a character living in 2033, attempts to warn her business co-workers and her friends of the danger posed by a society which excludes men. Together with the fact that women who worked in munitions factories were referred to as “canaries” due to the yellow tinge that the chemicals they worked with left on their skin.

While her husband Ira is at war, conservative Queenie is persuaded by her trail-blazing friend Maggie to start work in a munitions factory. Queenie and Rose (another canary) both suffer doubts as to whether they are making a difference to the war effort or simply manufacturing ‘more ammunition, more weapons so that more men can die.’ Whereas Maggie embraces her role in the munitions factory, she enjoys the work and no one tells her that the work ‘is too dangerous for young ladies.’ Conflict ensues when Ira returns badly injured from the war, does not approve of his wife working and feels frustrated that he is unable to work and act as the family breadwinner. Meanwhile in 2033 high-flying business woman Helen and her colleague Karen are the sole breadwinners for their families. Karen is a single mother, while Helen’s husband Daniel is a house-husband. When Helen’s daughter Zoe leaves to join the front line, Helen realises just how much she has neglected her and the rest of the family. Her cut-throat approach to business, results in her being promoted and her best friend losing her job.

The play moved beyond its initial aim of commemorating women’s role in the war effort, to exploring their changing roles in society, the reaction of their husbands when they returned from war and the knock-on effects of the idea that there could be such a change in roles. I think World War One marked a turning point for women, not only because of the Suffragette movement, but also because it was the period in which women, out of necessity, began doing what had previously been considered to be man’s work. After recently reading reports concerning the rise of female students attending university and the decrease in the number of male students, I wondered whether a more radical change in roles would occur in the future. This caused the play to change direction and consider what would happen if society became a woman’s world.

I recently heard on BBC Radio 4 that there has been a rise in the number of single women buying sperm from Denmark over the internet. This is a subject which the play addresses in a scene in which an ‘Embryo Fayre’ is held where women can purchase designer embryos. When asked where the male embryos are kept, businesswoman Helen is met with the following response: ‘we don’t have any of those…the line has been discontinued. We found them to be inefficient, unproductive, not in line with current standards.’ The saleswoman’s statement is intended as a reflection of recent news stories expressing anxiety over the decrease in numbers of male university applicants in comparison with female applicants. The Telegraph quoted university chiefs referring to male applicants as a “disadvantaged group.”  I disagree with the Telegraph’ s positioning of men as a ‘disadvantaged group’, however I think there is some truth in the notion that sometimes men can feel emasculated and suffer from low self-esteem as a result. Pressure applied by schools to achieve targets and high grades doesn’t help the situation as not everyone is a high-flyer and not achieving an A at GCSE or at A Level does not mean that you are an under-achiever or have no prospects. We all know that typically girls mature faster than boys. This disparity between the sexes is something that I have been exploring in ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’; Karen worries about her sons who have no ambition in a world where universities are desperate for male applicants. With capable women making up a higher percentage than men in universities and in the workplace, there is a danger of the men falling behind. Whether this is due to ‘pure laziness’ (Helen’s opinion, not mine) or feelings of inadequacy and emasculation (Karen’s view), I’m not sure, but it is a subject rarely spoken about and one that often passes unnoticed.

I am a feminist and, as Emma Watson rightly pointed out in her ‘He for She’ campaign, that means I believe in equality. The real message of ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’ is that there should be equality, a balance between the sexes. My only worry is that with new developments in science and technology, enabling women to have children without a male partner when it suits them, there may be those that believe that men are becoming redundant in society. This of course is an extreme statement, but there are many women out there who ‘do it all’ quite happily and wouldn’t have it any other way. If it is true that women don’t need men, what happens when women no longer want men? I’m sure men want to feel needed, to feel wanted. I’m not saying we should do anything differently. I just think men could do with a little bit of encouragement and support too, whether that means campaigning to show men how they can make a difference to the feminist movement or working to address the falling numbers of adolescent males attending university.



Beth Cortese is an Associate Lecturer in English at Lancaster University where she is currently undertaking doctoral research on women’s wit in the work of female playwrights in the period 1660-1720.