Radium Girls Statue Dedication Is the Place to Be This Labor Day Weekend — Friday, September 2nd, 11:00 AM, Ottawa, Illinois
On Friday, September 2, at 11:00 a.m. at the corner of Clinton and Jefferson streets in Ottawa, Illinois, a statue of a young woman holding flowers in one hand and paintbrushes in the other will be unveiled. She is the symbol of the Radium Girls, the young women who worked in the clock and watch factories dotting the Illinois Valley in the first half of the 20th century. This was the era of “glow in the dark” watch and clock dials, painted with deadly radium. Many of these workers died from the effects of putting their brushes in their mouths countless times a day to sharpen the points, as the companies trained them to do.
The statue will stand on the site of the Luminous Processes factory in Ottawa at Clinton and Jefferson. The City of Ottawa, community groups and local unions worked together to raise the funds and assure the successful completion of this project. Laborers Local 393, an affiliate union of the ILHS, has donated many member volunteer hours to prep the site where the statue will be placed.
It all started when student Madeline Piller made the Radium Girls the subject of her junior high history fair project, and then never forgot their story. Her father Bill Piller is a sculptor and she enlisted his help to honor these women, many of whom were laid to rest after their untimely deaths in the Catholic cemetery just outside of Ottawa. A Geiger counter passed over these graves will still register the presence of the deadly radium poison that took their lives.
The Ottawa Radium Girls were not alone. Radium-painting factories were also operating in New Jersey and Connecticut. In her book Radium Girls, Woman and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, Central Michigan University historian Claudia Clark extensively documents the suffering of these young women and the fight they and their families mounted to obtain proper compensation from their employers.
On July 7, 1937, the Chicago Daily Times covered one such legal battle. Reporter John Main wrote: “Fifteen living dead women will appear before the Illinois Industrial Commission here on July 25. It will be the next-to-last act of what lawyers say is the biggest and most pitiful miscarriage of justice in the history of Illinois. The last act will be these women’s death – sure, tortured, horrible.”
These efforts for justice helped spark needed legislation concerning occupational diseases’ and workers compensation laws throughout the country. This Labor Day weekend, we commemorate the contribution made by the struggle of these young women to the health and safety protection of all working people.