Women Workers’ Rights: From Phosphorous to Free Radicals

With the growth of industry in the turn of the twentieth century, a growing number of people got jobs in factories where they would be exposed to hazardous chemicals. Unlike today, there were no regulations on using these chemicals, and workers were not given the “Right to Know” the associated risks. Separated by forty years and an ocean apart, two groups of women were at the epicenter of the battle for safe workplaces. Both the cases of the London Matchgirls and the Radium Girls involved gross negligence on the corporations’ part, resulting in horrific injury and death. It’s important to remember the past and thank the courageous women who stood up for themselves despite being in terrible pain, because they helped shape safety regulations for years to come.

The Bryant and May Factory in the Bow district of London employed hundreds of women and girls known as Matchgirls to make matchsticks using white phosphorous. The compound, cheaper but more hazardous than the red phosphorous used today, collected in the air inside the factory and contaminated the food the workers ate on the job (Yost 1). The result was a condition known as Phossy Jaw. Phossy Jaw, characterized by painful abscesses in the gums and jaw, leads to necrosis of the mandible (“Phossy jaw” 2). In addition to exposure to white phosphorous, worker’s paychecks often included unfair charges for the materials they used (Besant 1). On June 23rd, 1888, Annie Besant published an article with the help of two Matchgirl informants titled “White Slavery in London” in the workers’ newspaper The Link, which she cofounded. In the article, she wrote of unfair wages averaging six shillings a week, the equivalent of thirty-seven modern U.S. dollars (Besant 3). On July 1st, the girls said to have given Besant that information were fired (“Strike of Bryant and Mays’ Matchgirls”). On July 6th, workers at the Bryant and May Factory went on strike to protest the firing of the informants and their poor working conditions (Yost 1). On July 16th, Matchgirl diplomats met with the factory management and members of parliament to discuss the strike’s demands (Yost 4). In the end, the Bryant and May Factory agreed to accept all terms presented, which included the drop of unfair pay deductions as well as a separate room for eating and drinking (Yost 4). Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, women were exposed to similar occupational hazards.

Grace Fryer, who died of radiation poisoning in 1933 in Orange, New Jersey

Since its discovery by Marie Curie in 1898, radium gained popularity in the United States due to its ability to glow in the dark. Leading this new industry was the U.S. Radium Corporation, which designed a glow-in-the-dark watch in 1917 for soldiers to use in the trenches of World War I. After the armistice, radium-containing watches and clocks continued to become popular among the American public. Behind the scenes of this trend were almost a thousand women hired to paint the numbers on clock faces using radium paint in factories based in Orange, New Jersey, and Waterbury, Connecticut (Hersher 1). In the workers’ training, they were taught a technique called “lip-pointing,” putting their paintbrushes in their mouths in order to get a fine point. This, in addition to the radium in the air, gave the workers high doses of radiation. Similar to Phossy Jaw, the watch painters developed a condition called Radium Jaw. Mae Keane was hired at the Waterbury factory in 1924. She said, “There was one woman who the dentist went to pull a tooth and he pulled her entire jaw out when he did it. Their legs broke underneath them. Their spines collapsed” (Hersher 1). In 1925, a woman named Grace Fryer announced plans to sue U.S. Radium, but struggled to find an attorney who would represent her (Kovarik 5). During this time, Dr. Fredrick Flynn examined her and told her she was perfectly healthy. It was later discovered that Dr. Flynn was not a medical doctor, but rather a toxicologist hired by U.S. Radium to silence its victims (Mullner). On May 18th, 1927, five women — Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice — represented by Raymond Berry sued U.S. Radium (Kovarik 5). In its defense, U.S. Radium carried out a vicious smear campaign against the women who had become known as the Radium Girls, alleging that they had syphilis from promiscuity (Gunderman and Gonda). McDonald and Larice’s sister Amelia Maggia had died in 1922 after being diagnosed with syphilis. On October 16, 1927, Dr. Joseph Knef, a dentist who had treated all three sisters, had Amelia exhumed. He found that Amelia’s remains were highly radioactive, and that she died of necrosis, never having had syphilis (Kovarik 6). The following fall, the case was settled, granting each Radium girl $10,000 (equivalent to $138,000 today) plus a $600 (equivalent to $8,300 today) per year annuity (Kovarik 10). In 1928, Schaub and Hussman volunteered to take part in human studies on the effects of radium. Hussman said, “I’m ready to undergo experiments like Katherine…Together we can face whatever danger there may be. I’m only too glad to do anything to help the others and maybe save lives” (Kilgallen).

The Matchgirls and the Radium Girls showed courage in the face of powerful corporations, all while struggling with horrendous illnesses. The Matchgirls contributed a lot to the Women’s Labor Movement in England, and the Radium Girls provided insight into the biophysics field. The U.S. Radium Corporation eventually shut down in 1970, and is now a Superfund site (“EPA Superfund Program”).


Besant, Annie. “White Slavery in London.” The Link : A Journal for the Servants of Man June 1888. Web.

“EPA Superfund Program: U.S. RADIUM CORP., ORANGE, NJ.” Web.

Gunderman, Richard B, and Angela S Gonda. “Radium Girls.” Radiology 274.2 (2015): 314–318. Web.

Hersher, Rebecca. “Saved By A Bad Taste, The Last ‘Radium Girl’ Dies At 107.” Weekend All Things Considered Dec. 2014. Web.

Kilgallen, James L. “Women Radium Victims Offer Selves for Test While Alive.” The Bee May 1928. Web.

Kovarik, Bill. “The Radium Girls.” Washington, DC: SAGE Publications, Inc, 1996. Print. Mass Media and Environmental Conflict: America’s Green Crusades.

Mullner, Ross. Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association, 1999. Web.

“Phossy Jaw.” The Daily Chronicle June 1898. Web.

“Strike of Bryant and Mays’ Matchgirls.” Reynolds’s Newspaper July 1888. Web.

Yost, Robinson. “Source Analysis: Matchgirls Strike of 1888.” 2016. Web.

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