March is Women’s History Month, a time when Americans remember the courage and commitment of women the world over.
Mar. 25 is a grim anniversary during this month of remembrance. On that date in 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. Inside the building, laboring under sweatshop conditions, female garment workers were trapped by locked doors that blocked their attempts to flee the burning factory. Of the hundreds of young women working in the factory, only a few survived. New York and the nation were horrified at the death toll of 146 women killed in the fire. Most were Italian immigrants or European Jews trying to make a new home in America. Dozens jumped to their deaths from the windows of the 10th floor garment workshop.
The infamous Triangle Fire underlined the concerns of the labor movement at the time that workers were expendable in a corporate world that would place profits above the lives of people. The corpses of scores of young women lying blackened and bloodied on the sidewalks of New York were mute testimony to the long and ongoing campaign for economic justice and safety in the workplace being waged by the labor movement in America in 1911. They were martyrs to a cause that still is relevant today in America and around the world.
Just a few years later, the issue of the health and safety of women in the workplace would again make headlines across this nation and around the globe. During and after World War I, hundreds of women were employed at companies in Illinois and New Jersey that used radium, a radioactive element. The United States Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company had profitable military contracts to provide luminous dials for airplanes, tanks, ships and the watches worn by soldiers. The pay was good, the working conditions were friendly, and the soft glow in the dark emanating from the women’s hair, skin and clothing was looked upon almost as a status symbol by the working class girls and women who could afford the latest fashions because of their jobs at the radium facilities.
Their Cinderella story soon turned sad for the factory workers who were called “the shining girls.” Historian Kate Moore detailed the story of their long and courageous battles in hospitals against their own illnesses and in courtrooms against corporate power in her 2017 book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. Workers at the dial painting factories began sickening and even dying at early ages from the tortuous symptoms of radium poisoning. Their long legal battle to obtain justice from the business that exposed them to the toxic substance spanned the decades of the Roaring Twenties and the Depression-era Thirties.
“It is impossible to say how many dial-painters were killed by their work: so many were misdiagnosed or never traced that the records simply do not exist,” wrote Moore. “Sometimes the cancer that former workers suffered in later life was never attributed to the job they did in their teens, though it came as a direct result.” Moore credits the struggle by the “shining women” that finally led to a courtroom verdict against the radium industry as a historic legal fight that eventually led to the establishment of the U.S. Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The shining women are glowing in their graves today, but radium lives on. Right here in Athens, near Georgia Square Mall, a radium dial company named Luminous Processes closed down in the late 1970s, leaving behind radioactive waste and contaminated soil that became the target of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund clean-up effort in 1981. According to the EPA’s website, the cleanup crews cleared away some 18,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil and 2,400 drums of radioactive material at the site, which is now occupied by a fast food restaurant.
It is fitting to remember the martyrs of the Triangle Fire and the radium industry during Women’s History Month. The motto of author Moore’s website, theradiumgirls.com, speaks for all the women and girls who were workplace casualties when the 20th Century was young: “They paid with their lives. Their final fight was for justice.”
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