Radium Girls rememberedby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
A new production at the History Theatre in St. Paul brings to life the story of some very courageous women and an important event in U.S. labor history. The women's exposure to toxic levels of radiation in the work place, and their fight for justice, is the subject of "These Shining Lives."
St. Paul, Minn. — The early 1920s was a great time to be a young American woman, or at least so it would appear.
Women had just won the right to vote. World War I had forced employers to start hiring women to fill the jobs left behind by soldiers, a trend that continued after the war.
Macalester College history professor Peter Rachleff says women were getting out of long and solitary days at home cooking and cleaning, and were making friends with other women in the workplace.
"There was a kind of romance and drama for these young women about being outside the home, in a workplace, in a largely female environment, a kind of sisterhood type of environment," said Rachleff. "They were in big cities, and they were working with the most modern technology."
Some of those young women entering the workforce were hired by the Radium Dial Co. in Chicago and the United States Radium Corp. in New Jersey.
The women painted watch faces, so that the hands and numbers would glow in the dark. It was a technique first used by the military, but it soon became a popular fashion item.
The paint was a combination of glue, water and radium powder which the women would brush on with finely tipped camel hair brushes. The brushes would quickly lose shape, so the factory bosses encouraged the workers to moisten and reshape the brushes with their mouths.
Rachleff says for fun, some of them decorated their nails, even their teeth, with the paint, to surprise their boyfriends when they turned off the lights.
"It all became a kind of exciting enterprise for them, until they became sick," said Rachleff.
The company doctors tried to prove that employee illnesses had nothing to do with the work. They even went so far as to blame the illnesses on syphilis in order to taint the plaintiffs' reputations.
After a time, the women's jaws began to swell, and their bones started to crumble.
Ultimately the women organized, sued their employers, and won. The newspapers loved this case, because it featured pretty young women rather than coal-covered miners or rough looking construction workers.
A few years ago playwright Melanie Marnich read about the Radium Girls, as they were called. She says she was fascinated.
"These were women who were the children of immigrants, who probably truly believed in their heart of hearts they were just lucky to have this job," said Marnich. "And the job betrayed them. And then they had to go out of any of their typical frames of reference, and actually develop the confidence and fortitude and the inner power to take on the companies that I think they probably revered."
History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso says "These Shining Lives" is a great reminder of the important role unions play in protecting workers.
"In this case, there's nobody there to support these women at the Radium Dial Clock Factory. There is no union, so they're at the mercy of management," explained Peluso. "And when you're an independent worker, and there's no representation for you, you really have no recourse but to do the job or quit."
Peluso says he hopes people will bring their daughters or other young women to the show, so that they can understand how others before them worked hard in order to give them the opportunities they have today.
"These Shining Lives" runs through June 1 at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul.
Radium Dial watches were outlawed in the 1970s, but you can still find them in garage sales and antique stores.
The watches are likely to emit as much radiation today as they did when they were first manufactured, but experts say the risk to wearers is low, as long as they don't take the watch apart.