A hundred years later, what has changed? In the first of a two-part series, we reflect on the history of the Radium Girls and their influence on the industry
In this two-part series, we explore the history of the Radium Girls and their influence on the recognition of occupational hazards. We then take a look at modern working conditions for women who are still exposed to hazards in the workplace over a century later.
In 1916, one of the first factories to produce glow-in-the-dark watches opened in New Jersey, US.
Over a hundred years ago, these kinds of watches were hugely popular.
The paint that made the watches glow contained radium, and to paint the tiny clock dials the women had to point the brush with their lips.
Due to the war effort, it was essentially only women who worked in these factories. This trend continued into the 1920s, and even after the war these factories were populated by women who became known as the “Radium Girls”.
Surprisingly, these particular jobs were actually very highly paid – the women who worked in those factories were in the top 5 per cent of wage earners among women workers at that time: “It was a highly prized job,” says Professor Jim Brophy of the University of Windsor.
Discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, the dangers of radium were then unknown (though by the 1920s there was somewhat more knowledge).
“Radium was a very novel substance at that point,” explains Brophy.
He says that initially, people thought that radium would have a positive effect – that it would be useful in treating cancers for example.
We know now that exposure to radium can have incredibly harmful effects – and indeed, by the mid 1920s, women working in these factories were falling ill. Because of how they were holding the brushes (i.e. between their lips), the workers got very high exposures in their mouth.
Within a few years, unexplained health issues began to develop – in most cases fatal, though some cases were simply horribly disturbing, says Brophy.
In 1922, Mollie Maggia became the first woman to die of what was soon called “radium jaw”. By 1927, over 50 women had died as a result of radium paint poisoning.
A hundred years later, the Radium Girls are considered a major part of labour history in North America and their case lead to a better recognition of occupational diseases.
It took years for the women to get their condition recognition – they also struggled for compensation.
Initially, employers and corporations denied that this had anything to do with their working conditions.
“They fought these women who went to court to get help for medical costs because so many of them were so horribly sick, had suffered horrible cancers and they had no money,” says Brophy.
Grace Fryer, a worker at the original New Jersey factory, filed a lawsuit alongside four other workers in 1927 – the case was settled in their favour in 1928. More lawsuits followed.
“They never gave up, they fought, they brought this to the public, they championed workers’ rights and the need for protection in the workplace,” says Brophy
It was huge step forward for safer workplaces and “it was a major step in recognizing the impacts that radiation has on health,” says Brophy.
Gender and class
As well as a lack of understanding around the dangers of radium, gender (and class) also played a huge part.
We speak about class because though their wages were attractive, the women who worked in the factories were from less affluent backgrounds.
Though they were developing health issues, it is likely that the women did not want to complain out of fear of losing their job or their wage.
Brophy says there is no doubt that sexism is apparent in the whole case.
At the outset, the women were not given adequate PPE – a problem which persists to this day.
He also highlights the gender differences between the employers and the workforce, and also the way the female workers were treated – lied to and then slandered once they asked for recognition.
We see parallels today, in cases where workforces are overwhelmingly female and where they are exposed to very toxic substances without any protection or information.
“That problem of sexism and what that means in terms of working conditions, what it means in terms of exposures, what it means in terms of rights – that continues on to this day,” says Brophy.
Looking back, we view the Radium Girls as a part of history. But what has truly changed in the last century? Though rights have certainly advanced, many women remain disadvantaged in the workplace. In the second part of this series, we will look at the modern parallels between the Radium Girls and certain industries today where women continue to be disenfranchised.