Rachel Sumner’s “Radium Girls (Curie Eleison)” Shines A Light On Labor Law Landmarks

[Cover photo credit to Hannah Cohen]

Featured this week in a Library of Congress exhibit focusing on Labor Day, Rachel Sumner’s “Radium Girls (Curie Eleison)” tells the story of women who are often absent from most history books. The Radium Girls of the 1920s changed history: after radium dial companies knowingly exposed the young factory workers to radium poisoning, the women’s cases led to landmark labor laws and standards, and can even be said to have led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Sumner says:

To this day it boils my blood to think about what happened to these women, but the day I first read about them I was absolutely livid. It had been nearly a hundred years since radium dial companies started cropping up. I took my urge to shout their story from rooftops and focused it into crafting a ballad to honor and share their plight. In a time where major US companies and warehouses continue to exploit workers and risk their health for profit, the story of the Radium Girls is one we cannot afford to forget.

Sumner wrote the song, which won a Lennon Award in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2021, after hearing Joanna Newsom’s “Time (As A Symptom),” Sumner encountered a word she’d never heard before, “undarked.” A search pointed toward a luminous paint containing radium that was called Undark. Originally used on watch faces, it was intended to help WWI soldiers tell time in the dark without having to strike a match that could give away their position in the trenches. 

After the war, an appetite for glow-in-the-dark watches spilled over into the civilian market and radium dial companies met the demand by hiring young women, instructing them to take their paintbrushes and “lip, dip, paint.” This technique kept the brush tips pointed so workers would not waste the Undark paint.

The companies knew how dangerous radium was but in this lucrative business, they then worked to discredit and silence women who spoke out by blaming their mysterious illnesses and deaths on sexually transmitted infections. It took years of legal battles for the truths of these women to be acknowledged and for the life-threatening dangers they faced to be addressed. Their case shaped United States labor laws and led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Rachel Sumner has a full-length album coming up in 2024.

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