Telling the story of the radium girls and their fight for justice

by Catherine Best

Women or girl radium painters working in a factory (source here)

I was fortunate to attend the Electrifying Women event held at the University of Leeds on 26th February 2020 and to meet with a variety of women passionate about publicising the impact of women in the traditionally patriarchal world of engineering and promoting women’s equality as a given.

It wasn’t difficult to see why I would be interested in attending. As an occupational health nurse specialist, I am interested in all things to do with work and health and as a feminist and avid blogger I was there to understand the work that women engineers do, the prejudice they continue to face and determine how I could contribute to the research.

My interest was not in the women engineers per sé but those who had worked in engineering and had suffered because business owners had failed to ensure the health and wellbeing of its workers.

How could I make the link and write a blog about this? I had no need to worry, for during a chat with Dr Nina Baker, an independent engineering historian who presented at the event, I was able to share my interests. We spoke about perhaps one of the less well-known stories of worker oppression – that of the radium girls and the conversation led me to purchase the eBook ‘The Radium Girls: They Paid with Their Lives. Their final fight was for justice’ written by Kate Moore and published by Simon & Schuster.

‘A heavy book’ Nina called it and she was right, but not because of its length, which actually took me over 9 hours to read, it was the horrific stories of the lives shattered and the loss of hope that ensued when being exposed to radium. In addition to this, the Electrifying Women project has mostly focused on British examples of women in engineering and technical roles, so this blog will offer an international angle on the subject.

The story of the radium girls begins during the First World War when, in the USA, women and young girls were employed at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation of Newark and then Orange, New Jersey. In a successful takeover bid in the summer of 1921, it was renamed the United States Radium Corporation. Its success, it seemed, was secured.  A few years later, a further radium factory the Radium Dial Company opened in the small town of Ottawa, Illinois. In total, an estimated 4,000 workers were hired by various radium corporations across the USA and Canada.

These companies, and the women and girls they employed, were central to the war effort. But what appeared to be good, well paid, if not challenging, work was to leave a deadly legacy. Thin paint brushes were needed to paint the luminous dials that would light up the instrument panels of military equipment and the wristwatches of those men destined to fight. Pilots were increasingly required to fly at night and the often-intemperate weather would limit their vision, therefore luminous radium painted onto dials and switches would help light up the cockpit thus helping to maintain night vision.[1]

This work required women to have a steady hand. The fine work was very specific, and the women and girls employed were encouraged to place the brush, and thus the radium, between their pursed lips to ensure the brush could be easily used. They were told it was safe, but it wasn’t, for they were ingesting radium, which in years to come would see them suffer immense pain, their bones crumble, and their teeth, along with their jaw bone, simply fall out of their mouths. It didn’t stop there. For many went on to develop cancerous growths, and the healthcare bills continued to rise, leaving many families destitute.

Perhaps two of the most well-known of the radium girls are Grace Fryer and Catherine Donahue who, as Kate Moore’s book portrays, despite their dwindling health and severely debilitated lives, challenged the business owners and won.

Grace Fryer was employed at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange in 1917, just as the USA entered the First World War. At just 18 years of age, she believed she had her whole life in front of her, but radium poisoning was to take all that away from her in just a few short years. But Grace was not perturbed by this, instead she, along with others, employed a lawyer who would help them fight their case, sadly for them time began to run out and they were forced to settle out of court. Despite this set back, the seeds had been sown. The battle for compensation for the many other women and girls inflicted by this most heinous of poisons had only just begun. Her death on 27th October 1933, at just 34 years old, would not be in vain.

Catherine Donahue was employed at the Ottawa site at just 19 years old. Sixteen years later she was dying from radium poisoning. Her efforts to bring these owners to court in the belief that they should pay for their lies again were not in vain, for the radium girls were to eventually win their case, not only that, they were to be the catalyst for new laws within the USA that were to protect the next generation of dial painters across America.

Commemorating the lives of ‘The Radium Girls’

In a befitting tribute to these most courageous of women, Moore tells us of the erecting of a life-size bronze statue of a woman from the 1920s standing on a clock face holding a tulip in one hand and paint brush in the other. This statue, which stands at the corner of Clinton Street and Jefferson Street in Ottawa Illinois, is, and never will be, enough.

A memorial to the “radium girls” in Ottawa (Mark Riechers, TTBOOK, source here)

Historically women have been treated with contempt. Their contribution to society undervalued. Their fight for justice, however, continues to be highlighted on days such as International Women’s Day on 8th March.

In the UK, in the latter half of the 19th Century, the matchstick girls fought long and hard to gain the right to work safely, the phosphorous they worked with to make matches causing similar illness to that of the radium girls. They won their fight.

And whilst there appears to be a decline in the number of men who contract mesothelioma, a disease caused by exposure to asbestos, sadly the same cannot be said for women. Many women worked in buildings and continue to work in buildings that contain asbestos, whilst others ‘picked up’ the disease as a result of washing their husband’s overalls containing asbestos. There is rarely any coming back from this disease. It is for most a death sentence.

Such stories should be assigned to the annals of history, but society has not yet learned to value the true worth of women.

In the UK, we continue to celebrate the lives of women in engineering and other industries who worked hard, with many giving their lives, such as the Barnbow Lasses. A plaque situated in Manston Park Leeds, pays tribute to the lives lost on the fateful day of 5th December 1916, when 35 women were killed in the munitions factory, Barnbow. The public are forever indebted to the work they did. Whilst in Sheffield, stands a bronze statue commemorating the lives of women steel workers, who kept the steel works going during the Second World War.

In Parliament Square stands a bronze statue of Millicent Fawcett, the suffragist, holding a banner enshrined with the immortal words ‘Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere’. Although this statue is designed to commemorate the success of women in the UK obtaining the vote, these words are symbolic of the fight that women have chosen to take on throughout history. For it is courage and perhaps courage alone that sees women become the victors of oppression.

The stories that exist throughout history stand strongly against the festering disease that is oppression, of lives unlived, a failure to recognise the courage and heroism of women in a world of dominant patriarchy that left many without hope that their lives could be any different. The stories told of the radium girls and the fight not only for compensation, but also their determination to prevent other women and girls dying from radium poisoning, does credit to women across the world. For it is only through such bravery, such commitment and such dedication, that women can continue to take up the fight for equality, which sadly still eludes us today.

About the author

Catherine Best is an Honorary Nursing Lecturer at the University of Bradford, a Queen’s Nurse and member of Sigma a global nursing society that recognises academic achievement. As a feminist her research focuses on primarily oppression within nursing although this has expanded recently to include the impact of women worker oppression in a patriarchal world that continues to exist.