Women’s History Month: The Radium Girls

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Kerianne O' Gara, Staff Writer

Women’s History Month, originally Women’s History Week, has been celebrated since 1981. There are countless women who are remembered and recognized for their contributions to society. But most people don’t know the forgotten story of the radium girls.

By the early 1920s, a new wristwatch with a glow-in-the-dark dial became very popular. The watch used radium, an element  discovered less than twenty years ago with the ability to glow and fizz. It was often used by doctors to treat diseases, and salesmen promoted it by promising results such as longer lives and more beauty in women. In reality, radium is extremely dangerous and caused dozens of deaths.

When the men joined World War I, hundreds of women looked for jobs at the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey. There, they were put to work painting numbers onto watches and military dials. This job was known as “the elite job for the poor working girls.” It paid over three times more than the average factory job and gave the women financial freedom. Many of the workers were teenagers since their small hands made the job easier. The women became known as the radium girls.

In order to make the numbers small enough, the workers were instructed to use a technique called “lip pointing.” After painting each number, they put the tip of the paintbrush between their lips to sharpen it. For each digit they painted, the women swallowed a small amount of radium, twelve numbers per watch, and about two hundred watches per day. But the radium girls did not know that this was dangerous.

Men who worked at the radium companies knew to wear lead aprons and handle the element with ivory-tipped tongs. The dial painters were not privileged with any protection, nor were they warned that protection would be necessary. Many people at the time thought that only a small amount of radium would actually be beneficial to your health, and many everyday substances could even be bought with it.

Managers who worked at radium firms ignored the danger signs and continued to let women work with it, unprotected. By the time they finished their shifts for the day, the workers themselves would glow in the dark from so much radium exposure and intake. The radium girls used this to their advantage to make themselves shine in the dance halls at night. The real danger of radium was presented later, however.

By the mid-1920s, dozens of dial painters started to fall ill from horrific diseases. One woman’s entire jaw was pulled out when she had a tooth pulled at the dentist. Other worker’s legs broke and their spines collapsed. The women’s bones were literally being eaten by the radium from the inside. Dozens of them died, and those who were still alive sued the U.S. Radium Corp. and won. Many ended up using the money they were given to pay for their own funerals. Over 50 women were dead by 1927 as a result of radium paint poisoning.

The dial painters had a powerful impact on workplace regulations. When World War II came, safety limits for working with radiation were put in place by the federal government. Although the radium girls’ story isn’t as well known, and most of the individual women have been forgotten, they still had an important impact in the workforce. It was because of their strength and courage that workers’ rights were won.