Less than a Half-Life: The Social Struggle of ‘Radium Girls’

Courtesy of Loyola's DFPA

“Radium Girls” is a play about real life and exactly how much it’s worth. 

Themes of social justice and fighting for women’s rights have reverberated throughout modern history, and the century-old struggle of the U.S. Radium Corporation’s “Radium Girls” is no exception.  

In “Radium Girls,” Loyola’s DFPA aims to produce an accurate and compelling retelling of the events that lead to a serious lawsuit against the U.S. Radium Corporation.

The themes of “Radium Girls” are still extremely relevant, stage manager Olivia Ash said. 

The depiction of the barbaric results of capitalist greed in “Radium Girls” is still incredibly relevant, considering the recent statistics on mistreatment and deaths of Amazon warehouse workers. In particular, the 2019 death of Amazon employee Billy Foister due to Amazon’s alleged negligence towards health concerns is strongly reminiscent of the U.S. Radium Corporation’s similarly uncaring attitude about the wellbeing of its workers.  

“It’s important to keep continuing to tell this story,” Ash, a 21-year-old senior theater major, said. “Companies can do this over and over again […] not treating their workers fairly and then not taking responsibility for their actions.” 

In the early 1900s, there was a radium craze due to Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of the element in 1898. Companies clamored to capitalize on the newly discovered element and its supposed health benefits. But as scientists soon learned, the dangers of radium far outweighed its benefits. 

“Radium Girls” takes place in 1926 amid radium’s booming popularity. Grace Fryer (Sophia Duque) and other young working-class women are paid to apply radium-laced paint to the faces of watches to make them glow in the dark. 

These young women directly ingested radium — far too much of it. All of them suffered from serious health complications and most of them eventually died. “Radium Girls” tells the true story of the faithful few who fought corrupt legal practices and overwhelming odds to get some small amount of justice. 

In this way, “Radium Girls” is different from a lot of other period pieces. It’s not a rose-colored view of the period, or a dramatized adaptation inspired by its events — it’s a character-driven and accurate narrative. 

Duque, a senior theater and communications double major, plays Grace Fryer, the real-life leader of a small group of “Radium Girls” who fought against the U.S. Radium Corporation. In the play, Grace realizes how serious the radium poisoning is and decides to do something about it. 

“It’s a very impactful story that we should not let discontinue from being told, because we can only learn from our stories, and our stories repeat themselves.”

Olivia Ash, 21

Apart from leading the movement, the story centers around Grace Fryer’s life as well. 

“The play kind of follows her through determining whether she wants to stick it out with her family, and her love and romance, or be true to herself and go after the company,” Duque said. “She knows that she’s dying, so she wants answers.” 

Ash also emphasized the importance of retelling historical stories to address issues that workers continue to face today. 

“It’s a very impactful story that we should not let discontinue from being told, because we can only learn from our stories, and our stories repeat themselves,” Ash said. 

The relevance of “Radium Girls” to current issues makes it valuable for anyone with an interest in current events or social commentary, Duque said.

“If you care at all about social justice, if you care about history, about romance, about real life,” Duque said. “This play has it.” 

“Radium Girls” runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 7 in the Newhart Family Theatre. In-person tickets cost $10 for students and $20 for faculty and staff. Livestreaming tickets are available for $10. Tickets are available at

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