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Panel discusses ethical issues in ‘Radium Girls’

Haleigh Emsen | Sunday, November 10, 2013

Experts from the Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame community contributed to a panel discussion Friday with D.W. Gregory, author of the play “Radium Girls,” which was performed on campus this weekend.

The talk, titled, “Radium Girls: Opening the Door to Justice,” was sponsored by the Justice Education department.

Gregory said she was inspired to write the play, a story about radium poisoning of female factory workers who painted the dials on watches in 1920s New Jersey, by a documentary about radium poisoning.

“I remember watching this documentary, ‘Radium City,’ and just feeling like there was so much more to the story,” Gregory said. “I wanted to know more about what happened to the women.”

Gregory said she didn’t begin work on the play until about 10 years later when she was scrolling on the Internet and discovered an article about a case in New Jersey involving radium poisoning of women.

“I thought, ‘Oh gosh, here’s a play,'” Gregory said.

“My original idea was that I was going to go out and find all this source material. I was going to look through diaries, journals to tell the story of the women in their own words, but I quickly found out that none of that existed in any form that I could have access to.”It became clear that if I was going to tell this story, it was going to have to be a fictitious recount.”

Gregory said the culture of compliance in the 1920s contributed to creating victims, and in the specific case of radium, women were often harmed.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to take a closer look at what it is that leads these kinds of things to happen,” she said. “For me, it wasn’t so much what happened, as it was why did it happen and why does it keep on happening.”It wasn’t just the story of the women, it was also the story of the men. And it wasn’t just the story of the men and women, but it was the story of the culture of the expectations of the time. It was about commercialization. It was about the period when women were just beginning to find their voices.”

“Radium Girls” has been produced more than 300 times in the United States, Gregory said, and mostly by education theater programs in high schools and colleges.

“There’s a lot in it that generates a lot of interest in a lot of different disciplines,” she said.

Dan Graff, a labor historian and director of undergraduate studies in Notre Dame’s Department of History, said unions have traditionally played an important role in creating a safe workplace.

At the time of the play in the 1920s, most industrial workers like the ‘radium girls’ were unprotected by unions, and they had to rely on their employers to provide a safe workplace,” Graff said.

Graff said workers, especially female ones, couldn’t advocate for themselves in the way unions could have advocated for their rights.

“‘Radium Girls’ hints at the workplace realities faced by workers separated by skill and usually by gender as well,” he said. “The main character, Grace, is outraged to learn that workers in the lab had screens to prevent their exposure to the radiation, unlike she and her fellow dial painters.”

Barbara Fick, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, said in absence of unions, workers depended on the government to keep the workplaces safe.

“In terms of government regulation in the 1920s, it was relatively new, and obviously, there were no federal regulations, so it was left up to the states,” Fick said.

Unfortunately, Fick said, the regulations that did exist were inadequate.

“They would identify a specific problem, but then they wouldn’t address anything else. And so the next time somebody would identify a problem, they would pass another law,” Fick said.

Kelly Hamilton, associate professor of history at Saint Mary’s, said many of the women working in the factories who were exposed to the radium were young and had their whole lives ahead of them.

“Most of them were young women, in mid-teens to early 20s,” Hamilton said. “The ’20s brought them opportunities, liberation to work outside the home.” Women who could produce painted dials more quickly, inserting the paintbrushes into their mouths to keep the bristles together, often were the first to die, Hamilton said.

“Tragically, [this method of working] may have contributed to the most gruesome deaths from radium poisoning,” she said.

Hamilton said although media at the time often portrayed girls poisoned by radium in a negative light, the young women earned public support.

“These women were not victims; they fought back and were aided by other women,” Hamilton said.

Patricia Fleming, provost, philosophy professor and senior vice president for Academics Affairs at Saint Mary’s, said ethics and informed consent are important in judging cases involving radiation.

“Unfortunately, scientists are reluctant to say there is a clear cause and effect relationship [between exposure to radium and death of girls], but rather, there is a clear correlation,” Fleming said.

Gregory”said the company in the play disregarded the ethical dilemma presented and is completely at fault for putting its workers in such a dangerous position.  

“The company had information and knew there were issues. There is an issue of culpability to anyone that turns a blind eye,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the excuse, ‘I didn’t know,’ because it is your business and it’s your responsibility to know.”

Contact Haleigh Emsen at hemse01@saintmarys.edu