I first learned of the Radium Girls four years ago. After reading Kate Moore’s novel, “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story Of America's Shining Women”, its meticulous research and compelling narrative led to my profound interest in workers’ rights and the American judicial system. This essay will provide a brief history of the Radium Girls and the series of legal battles that followed. For those who are interested in learning more, I would highly recommend taking a look at Moore’s novel. Although a 2018 adaptation of the Radium Girls also exists, it greatly underrepresents the severity of the situation and overall, distorts many historical details and real-life events…but that’s just my personal opinion.
The Radium Girls, a group of young women working in factories in the early 20th century, faced unimaginable hardships and health risks as they unknowingly exposed themselves to dangerously high levels of radium. The Radium Girls' courageous fight not only shed light on the dangers of occupational hazards but also played a pivotal role in shaping labor laws and workers' rights.
After Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium in 1898, its fascinating glow and appearance led to the belief that it had healing properties. Business took advantage of its rumored potentiality, and the chemical element soon became an addition in the manufacturing process of products ranging from drinking water to cosmetics. One of the most frequent uses of radium was mixing the powder with gum arabic and water to paint the dials of clocks and watches, causing them to glow in the dark. Factories sprouted across the United States, employing young women to paint watch dials and other instruments using radium-based paint.
The Radium Girls were tasked with the delicate process of applying the radium paint to tiny watch dials. To ensure accuracy, they were instructed to shape the paintbrush tips with their lips, a technique known as "lip-pointing." This routine action led to the ingestion of significant amounts of radium, as the workers were unknowingly consuming a toxic substance. They were also exposed to radioactive dust, as they frequently cleaned their brushes by licking them. The girls were initially honored to be receiving a position that was not only paying them well, but also allowed them to be near a substance that was believed to work medical wonders. However, as time passed, the Radium Girls started to experience severe health issues. They suffered from anemia, bone fractures, necrosis, and extreme pain. Their condition deteriorated rapidly, and many died agonizing deaths. Doctors struggled to diagnose their illnesses, as the link between radium exposure and health problems was not widely understood at the time.
A woman carefully applies radioactive radium onto the face of an alarm clock.
One of the most significant legal battles involving the Radium Girls was the case of Grace Fryer, one of the first workers to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Radium Corporation. The lawsuit, known as Fryer vs. U.S. Radium Corporation, was a landmark case that exposed the shocking negligence of the corporation and led to significant legal and societal changes. The trial drew significant media attention, and it soon became clear that the corporations had knowingly exposed their workers to life-threatening conditions and had purposely withheld vital information about the dangers of radium. In fact, it turned out that men who were working with radium in other factories had been provided with lead aprons and ivory-tipped tongs to protect them from the effects of radium, while corporations had not hesitated to leave women 100% vulnerable to its dangers. With newspapers covering the shocking details of the case and bringing public awareness to the dangerous working conditions the Radium Girls had endured, significant changes in labor laws were enforced.
As a result of the trial, many of the women who were still alive at the time were rewarded with settlements and financial support for medical treatments and care. However, on a much larger scale, the trial greatly affected labor laws and workers’ rights in the United States. The tragedy also prompted the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States in 1971, which aimed to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for all employees. Although the Radium Girls endured immense suffering, their fight for justice ultimately brought about important changes that benefited both themselves and future workers.