In Ottawa, IL there’s a statue on the northwest corner of Clinton and W Jefferson of a girl holding a wilting tulip. The tulip is wilting, of course, because the girl has radiation poisoning. She represents the women who worked at the Radium Dial factory in the 1930’s, putting delicate strokes of glowing paint on wrist-watch dials. The girls were told to lick their paint brushes to gain an extra sharp tip, unaware that the paint contained radium.
The toxic effects on the women were anemia, fractures and necrosis of the jaw, cancerous tumors, and amputations. The ill-health– and deaths– of workers was attributed to anything except radium exposure: x-ray machines used in medical examinations, or even syphilis, in an attempt to smear the reputations of the women. The women didn’t know what was happening to them, and their employers even convinced them that the radium was good for their health, that “it made their cheeks pink.”
Eventually, seven women dubbed the “Society of the Living Dead” stepped forward to sue the company that had knowingly poisoned them. In the end, the case traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, and the women won.
The badass name for those women suited the badassery of their actions. After all, this was 1934, and labor laws like worker’s compensation and safety standards were still developing. In fact, the case was a catalyst for improving those labor laws in America.
Despite what seems like victory, the people of Ottawa associated the women with the loss of jobs during the Great Depression, and tried to forget the entire affair.
Now, more than 80 years later, a school project by a local girl inspired appreciation for the terrible circumstances the Radium Girls endured and their fight for the right to work in safe conditions. A statue was built on the same corner where the factory once was.
A couple weeks ago, I went to see the statue in person. The history behind it wasn’t the only fascination thing I found there, though: fresh flowers were laid at the feet of the statue, and an older bouquet was nestled behind an informational sign nearby. Not only that, but a small waterfall was built into the space, around which a garden flourished.
The Radium Girls, despite their suffering, helped to create a safer, cleaner world. The girl’s tulip may be wilting, but she stands at the center of blossoming life.