As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these "shining girls" were considered the luckiest alive--until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America's biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers' rights. The Radium Girls explores the strength of extraordinary women in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the astonishing legacy they left behind.
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Failure to observe the latter precept decidedly cripples Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. The book is a meticulous examination of what happened to dozens of young women who painted watch dials. Over the years, they would be given a number of nicknames. The Ghost Girls. The List of the Doomed. Women Doomed to Die. And in February 1938 they named their own group The Society of the Living Dead. The names came from the radium in the luminous paint they applied to dozens of watch and instrument dials a day.
Moore, a British author, delves into the story of these women, their horrendous illnesses and their fight for justice. It's a tale of corporate callousness and almost criminal deceit, as well as the lag between scientific advances and the law. Unfortunately, it is a narrative that is overwhelmed by people and details.
Two companies are the villains. Prior to World War I, Radium Luminous Materials Corp. opened a watch dial factory in Newark, N.J. (It would later move to Orange, N.J., and become the United States Radium Corp.) After the war, the Radium Dial Company opened in Ottawa, Ill., about 85 miles southwest of Chicago. By applying paint containing radium the numbers on the dials would glow in the dark, leading Radium Luminous Materials to call its paint "Undark." Some of the numbers were as small as a millimeter in width, so the delicate work called for nimble, dexterous hands. As a result, the painters usually were women and a majority were teenagers.
Three words summarize what gave rise to their eventual predicament. Lip. Dip. Paint.
To ensure a fine point at the end of their brush, the women used a technique called lip-pointing. Throughout the day they would twirl the brush in their mouth to form a point, dip it in the paint and apply the paint to the numbers. This process also moistened any radium that hardened on the brushes. How often each worker lip-pointed each day was reflected in their earnings. Paid on a piecework basis averaging 1.5 cents per watch, the average painter took home $20 a week ($370 today) and the fastest sometimes earned $2,080 a year (almost $40,000 today).
A critical factor in this approach was that radium was considered a wonder drug at the time. When the first plant opened, radium was used to treat everything from cancer to gout to constipation. Dozens of radium-laced products, such as lingerie and cosmetics, even enemas, were on the market. Thus, rather than being warned of any dangers, the girls were told that, if anything, they would benefit from their exposure to radium.
But dozens slowly developed unusual physical problems. Complaints of intractable pain in the jaw was common. Teeth were removed in an attempt to alleviate the pain but not only did the pain remain, the holes left by the extractions didn’t heal. They would form ulcers and abscesses, which would also being showing up in other parts of their mouths. As this progressed, jaw bones would break by simply applying pressure with a finger. They had radiation poisoning, a disease unknown at the time but one that would produce a horrific death.
The first dial-painter died in 1922. She was 24 and only a few months before quit the job she'd held since she was 19. That and worker complaints led to various studies and investigations over the next couple years. Most, though, were conducted by industry experts and company doctors. Moreover, the industry suppressed anything that might suggest radium paint was causing these problems. The situation began drawing media attention when an employee in Orange, N.J., filed the first lawsuit over the condition in February 1925. On June 14, 1925, another female employee in New Jersey became the first dial-painter ever tested for the presence of radium. (Some wondered if it was merely coincidence that the test came a week after the first death of a male employee.) Her death four days later made the front page of the New York Times.
Even more media attention was generated when the parties to the lawsuit were going to autopsy the dial-painter who died in 1924. When her body was exhumed five years after her death those present reported that "the inside of the coffin was aglow with the soft luminescence of radium compounds." Every piece of tissue and bone examined during the autopsy was radioactive.
Yet not only did the industry aggressively fight the lawsuit and others, it did its best to suppress evidence that might support the claims. Moreover, the fact radiation poisoning was essentially unknown when the women’s problems developed meant the law also was a roadblock. All the suits were brought after the statutes of limitations expired for common law injury or workers compensation claims. While both New Jersey and Illinois made some industrial diseases compensable under workers’ compensation, radiation poisoning wasn’t among them Even if it was, those specific statutes of limitations also expired before the women’s conditions manifested themselves for years and before they knew the cause was occupational.
Given that the radiation poisoning appeared to be a death sentence, public outrage grew as the litigation dragged on and it appeared the radium girls had no remedy. Settlements were eventually reached in most of the cases, although at times it was only enough to cover medical and burial expenses.
Moore takes the reader through the effects on the women, the industry efforts to cover up any danger and the women’s struggle to find legal representation and a legal remedy. The extent of the book's research is reflected in the fact it has nearly 1,500 footnotes. Yet Moore's failure to be more discriminating in using the research produces a significant downfall.
At its core, The Radium Girls is a fascinating story of women with horrendous medical conditions fighting dishonest corporations and law that had yet to recognize their plight. But the core gets entangled in excess. The book’s “List of Key Characters” contains nearly 70 names. All of them -- and more -- are heard from over the course of the book, making it difficult to keep track of who is who. This is exacerbated once the book begins jumping back and forth between people and lawsuits in New Jersey and Illinois. It feels like, having devoted so much time and effort to research and interviews, Moore feels obligated to include as much of it as possible. This leaves an otherwise compelling tale adrift in a sea of information.
(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
The luminescent paint containing radium was applied by hand by women, many of them teenagers when they began working at the factory, using small paintbrushes. In order to apply the paint to small areas with precision, they were instructed to lick the brush heads to draw them to a fine point. This caused them to ingest the radium-infused paint, but they didn't worry about it because they were told, repeatedly, that the radium was perfectly safe. It was so safe, in fact, that they would often jokingly paint mustaches and other designs on their faces, enjoying the effect it created when they stood in a darkened room. Even without such playful shenanigans, the women's clothing and hair would shine with luminescence from the accumulation of radium dust from the factory air, which they carried out into the public and home with them. Because of this, they became known as the "Shining Girls."
Of course, we know how this ended. The radium was a deadly poison that settled itself in their bones and erupted months or years later into cancerous tumors and other devastatingly fatal conditions. Many of the girls suffered immensely as all of their teeth fell out and their very jawbones disintegrated from the effects of the radium poisoning. Because radium was not understood to be a poison, however, the dentists and doctors that they repeatedly consulted had no idea what was causing their ills. At least one girl was diagnosed as having syphilis, although she had never been sexually active. It took decades for the truth to become known and for at least some of the girls to receive monetary compensation.
The story as told by Kate Moore through contemporary accounts, including journals and interviews of the women involved, has several layers that make it interesting beyond the quest for justice by these specific women in this specific circumstance. Moore does a good job of outlining just how anemic were workplace safety regulations during the early 20th century, and how the case of the radium workers spurred stricter oversight of dangerous industries. She also effectively conveys how the science surrounding radium toxicity was laggard, though certainly the companies who hired the women knew it was dangerous and deliberately lied and stonewalled to keep from facing liability after the women began falling ill. Many, many women died before ever receiving the justice of hearing their employer admit they were culpable.
Moore writes in a mostly dispassionate tone, although her sympathy clearly lies with the women and there are moments when her indignation on their behalf leaks onto the page. I didn't feel her emotions detracted from the authority of her research and narrative; indeed as I read I was feeling much the same way and in a more emphatic way than she allowed herself to reveal.
All in all, it's a useful reminder of what life was like for working people, and women especially, in the days before government organized itself to protect employees from the greed and amorality of their employers.
When I was a child my father showed me an old army compass he owned. I remember being entranced by the luminescent face, so much brighter than my glow-in-the-dark toys. I asked him why it glowed like that and he turned it over, showing me
As soon as I received the audiobook I popped in the first CD and prepared to spend the rest of my day listening; unfortunately, the narration is so atrocious I could not continue beyond the first disc. Angela Brazil’s performance is so bad I had to check the box to make sure it wasn’t a computer generated reading. At her best Brazil sounds like she is reading a storybook to a kindergarten class, which is a totally inappropriate style for a book about women dying of radiation poisoning.
I cannot take another moment of the audiobook so I have requested the paper book from my local library.
Wow! Scary stuff! Imagine your jawbone disintegrating and breaking through into your mouth in pieces. These women were still young, wanted to get married and have families. Even worse was when a group of women who worked at a factory in New Jersey successfully sued for their health problems, but the company in Illinois told their employees that the radium the company used in NJ wasn’t to blame – it was something additional they put in theirs that wasn’t used in the Illinois factory… so the “lip, dip, paint” method continued in Illinois.
This book is nonfiction, but read like fiction. It kept me wanting to read, and it was a surprisingly fast read. Even more horrifying,
The Radium Girls is a devastating account of betrayal and horrific suffering and death, but Moore treats these early victims of radium poisoning and their harrowing stories with the respect and dignity that they were denied in their short lives. Hired to toil in the factories responsible for the nation's hottest new "miracle" element, the women of the radium-dial factories considered themselves fortunate as their bank accounts steadily grew and they went about their lives literally glowing. But when one by one they began to fall ill with mysterious ailments and suffer gruesome unexplained deaths, the women's cries of corruption and foul play within the radium industry fell upon deaf ears.
As Moore states in her author's note, literature addressing the criminal trials of the radium girls already existed, but no one had taken the time to tell the stories of the women themselves. While their fight for justice certainly plays a role, the emphasis of The Radium Girls is these women, their families, their loves and losses, and their enduring friendships with one another. Powerful, illuminating, and an electrifying tale of the valiant and tragic young women responsible for setting in motion groundbreaking changes for workers' rights and the role of a dangerously misunderstood element in American society.
The radium girls were victims of many. They were victims of a lack of knowledge about the dangers of radium.
The radium girls began work 100 years ago. I am thankful for the progress we have made in the last century.
Why I gave it only three stars. I think probably if you read it will depend on what you are looking for, and once again I found a blurb misleading. I though I would get to know these girls with a bit more depth, but so many girls are mentioned that was virtually Impossible though some are mentioned more often then others. The skipping around between the plants, the two locations was a bit disruptive and confusing at times. Their suffering, the horror of what they eventually go through, so many died, so young, this does come through, loud and clear, rightfully so. Still all that I mentioned, did make for repetitious reading.
I expected a more straightforward narrative, an intimate narrative account,and that is not this book, though I am very glad I read it. Big companies, doing bad things, hiding things for profit, are still and always will I believe happen. Avarice and greed are two of the seven deadly sins for a reason. Makes me wonder what we are doing today, eating or taking that we think is wonderful, that will turn out to be detrimental.
I was introduced to the story of "The Radium Girls", earlier this year when I was attended a performance of "These Shining Lives" put on by our local university. It was astounding and left me wanting to know more about these
After the discovery of radium in 1898 by the Curies, it was looked on as a most wonderful thing. Quickly savvy merchandisers came up with all kinds of miracle products and the radium craze was born. The discovery that radium could kill some cancers sealed the idea that it was safe and even beneficial.
Around this time, companies began to use radium in paint to outline the numbers on clocks, watches, and other instrument dials. The radium gave them a glow that allowed them to be seen in the dark. Young women were hired at a factory in Orange, New Jersey to paint these faces with radium paint. They were even encouraged to apply for the jobs as the United States entered WWI in order to do their part for the war effort in producing the dials needed for instruments used by the troops.
Efficiency was important since they were paid by the piece, but quality was also necessary. In order to get the neat and fine work needed on the dial faces, the girls were taught to paint in a very specific way. They would put the brush in their mouth drawing it out over their tightened lips to make a sharp point. Then they would dip it in a bit of the paint and paint the number on the dial. Lip, dip, and paint was done over and over hundreds of times a day by each girl. The paint would obviously be ingested by the girls as they followed this pattern. (With what we know now about radium, this becomes a real life horror scene.) The companies however were quick to point out the many advantages of radium that were being touted and assured them that it was completely safe.
Eventually the girls began to have numerous physical problems. They struggled to find someone to listen and give them accurate information about the reality of their diminishing health. The companies repeatedly assured the women that their jobs were completely safe even after evidence mounted to prove them wrong. This is repeated in Ottawa, Illinois when the Radium Dial Company opens a factory. The effects of the radium are devastating to these young women and their pleas for help are ignored by the companies who monitor their health but keep the results secret.
While heartbreaking to read, these women show courage and a strength of character that is astounding. They continue attempting to live as workers, wives, and mothers as next to normally as they can. Eventually they are driven to fight back to help each other. They try to recover some of the medical costs that threaten to ruin their families and avenge for the lives of those that have already been lost as well as preventing others from suffering their fate.
The story of these women is part of the bigger story of the beginning of worker's rights in the United States. They were able to finally get legal recognition of a company's responsibility to protect its workers and damages when they fail. The idea and initiation of worker's protection groups such as OSHA came out of the catastrophic and preventable results of radium exposure that these women suffered.
Their lives were not in vain, and this book shows that side of them as well. They were strong in their connections to one another and built on that strength to pull them through. Much of the book is dismal, but there remains, as in the play, a strong undercurrent of sisterhood and the power of persistence that is perhaps needed at this present time once again. The power of companies is well know, but there is also power when individuals join together and stand up for what is right and true.
My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this title. My special thanks to the author, Kate Moore, for her dedication and persistence in telling the story of these remarkable yet ordinary women whose lives can once again shine for us all to acknowledge and appreciate.
That is what
The tone of The Radium Girls reminded me a little of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (mini-review here). In both, the authors sought to add a personal touch to each of these women’s lives as they told of their struggles to be heard. Hidden Figures gives an account of the women instrumental in working toward breaking the color barrier to be taken seriously as mathematicians, not only at NASA but across the nation. The Radium Girls tells of a brave group of women fighting to be heard (and believed) that they were suffering and dying from deadly radium poisoning, and their battles through the courts to get compensation for their growing medical debts.
The author held little back in describing some of the medical conditions of these women. Not for the squeamish. The horrors these women had to go through – losing their teeth, their jaw bones literally cracking and falling out in pieces, and the constant pain (in backs, knees, arms, feet, etc.) – is quite literally terrifying.
And even through their suffering, they fought. They fought for justice for themselves, for their friends, for their sisters. And, eventually, they won.
"“I always admired their strength,” said Catherine Donohue’s great niece, “to stand up and unite.”
And, united, they triumphed. Through their friendships, through their refusal to give up and through their sheer spirit, the radium girls left us all an extraordinary legacy. They did not die in vain.
They made every second count."
Although not an easy fight, the “Radium Girls” prevailed, in the end.
Even though many of the girls did not live long enough to get their own personal justice, their strength and resilience through their countless lawsuits provided safe working conditions for others who came after them, like those working on the Manhattan Project.
"An official of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) wrote: “If it hadn’t been for these dial-painters, the [Manhattan] project’s management could have reasonably rejected the extreme precautions that were urged on it and thousands of workers might well have been, and might still be, in great danger.” The women had been, officials say, “invaluable.”"
This story is hard to hear, but it is a story that must be told so that history does not repeat itself.
It was horrifying to read to what lengths some companies would go through to keep themselves afloat, putting profit before their own loyal workers, and how willfully malicious they could be. NEVER should a company put their profits above the health and safety of their employees. It’s despicable.
Even as the men in charge learned of the dangers of radium, they refused to believe (or admit) that it was harmful to their employees, and thus refused to implement costly safety precautions to improve working conditions. Many of these cases could have been prevented if upper management had cared more about their workers’ safety.
But, hindsight is 20/20.
This was a really interesting read, and I think the author did a great job of incorporating some of the personal triumphs of the girls – friendships, marriages, children – with the harsh realities the girls were facing. Even though I knew the general outcome, the way the author wrote and organized the chain of events made me care about these girls from the past and learn how they got justice and recompense.
They suffered from radium poisoning, they fought a groundbreaking case, and they ultimately prevailed and found justice, though not in time to benefit all those girls affected.It is a powerfully resounding story of determination even in the face of adversity, and it's a story that needs to be told.
I’d give this book an overall rating of 4.5/5 stars for the quality of writing and bringing to light the historical significance of these strong girls who fought so hard for justice. Thank you to NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS (non-fiction) for a copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review.
Advanced Reader's Copy provided by SourcebooksKids.
During World War One, everyone wanted to help with the war effort in any way they could. One way was to paint watches, military dials, and clocks with a luminous substance that was made from radium. The military dials were vital for the soldiers serving overseas because they could see the time on the watch without showing their position because of the luminous glow that had been painted on them by the radium girls. These girls not only helped with the war effort but the pay was extremely good too. The girls had no idea that they were working with a very dangerous form of radiation and were even taught to shape the tip of the brush in their mouths in order for it to become a fine point. Rags and other ways were not used because it would waste the radium paste. They were employed by United States Radium Factory who knew how dangerous radium was. Upper management and scientists generally used protection but no one told the girls at all. Then one by one, the girls became very sick, usually starting with jaw pain but other ailments came up as well. The end result was a very painful death. The company knew this was happening and took an active role in actually hiding the evidence to the point of isolating one young lady from her family until she died and burying her before her family could become involved. The answer came years later when she was exhumed: her jaw had been removed to hide evidence. If you take a Geiger counter today to their graves, the needle will jump even 80 years after their deaths. They were also known as ghost girls. They actually glowed in the dark and played games like painting their teeth and nails because they had been told it was harmless and it looked so "pretty". They had no idea they were seeing the signs of their own death sentences.
There have been a few books written about the radium girls but never any that took the time to research who these girls actually were. They were mothers, daughters, sisters and they each had dreams and a story to tell. Kate Moore actually visited with family members and their graves and did so much research so we could know who these brave women were. The girls had to fight long and hard for justice and they probably had no idea how far reaching their fight would become. The reason why inspectors come to a company or you have to fill out a form if the accident happened at work is all because of these women's efforts and suffering. One of the girls even said if she could prevent one person suffering as she did then it was worth the fight. It is very hard and emotional reading to learn about a girl who was so happy to start working at 14 only to die a painful death at 21, a woman who was never able to bear children, a mother taken from her young children way too soon, and the actual facts about what exactly these women went through. We all owe these women a great debt and they should be remembered. Kate Moore has paid them the highest respect by making sure their stories are told and they are remembered. If there is one meaningful book to pick up this year, I highly recommend you read this one. I guarantee that the radium girls will stay with you and you will be grateful for having read it.
I received a copy from the publishers (thank you so much!) via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Moore focuses on two main themes in her investigations of the history of the radium dial painters: their medical problems, and their court battles to achieve justice. She chronicles in excruciating detail the personal stories of the horrific declines and disfigurements that each woman suffered. As Moore tells it, there were few grey areas. The women are portrayed as heroic figures. They were just beginning their adult lives, looking forward to marriages and starting families. Most were from modest backgrounds, attracted by the unusually high earnings that were possible doing piecework painting luminous numerals on watch dials using a radioactive substance. They were oblivious to the dangers associated with this work—and kept that way by their employers. In fact the women took pleasure in radium’s glow, using it on their clothing and even their bodies. They took pride in being recognized in their communities as the “shining girls.” Moore uses their deadly practice of moistening their brushes as a way to obtain a fine point in a haunting mantra for the disregard for radium’s dangers—“lip … dip … paint.”
Medical problems play out against the background of almost constant court battles between the injured workers and their employers. In this case, the heroic figure was Atty. Leonard Grossman, who worked pro bono to achieve justice for the sick women, known in the press as “The Suicide Club.” He was pitted against stereotypically corrupt corporate villains. These people controlled radium’s image with the public, characterizing it as safe and even healthful (“Liquid Sunshine”) while contradicting data available as early as 1906 that showed radium to be a bone seeking element that could exert harmful effects almost indefinitely (half life of 1600 years) once lodged in the skeleton. The corporations persisted in denying liability, placing blame on the women for using unapproved methods like “lip pointing.” Other villains in the scenario were most of the legal and medical professions who turned blind eyes to their suffering and the failure of government to intervene with regulations.
This fascinating story has flaws however. It tends to drown in a sea of information and often seems to be one-sided. Compelled to vividly chronicle each woman’s story, Moore’s narrative suffers from excessive and repetitive detail. It is difficult to follow the decline of each victim and the repeated failings in the courts. The book would have benefited from more focus on one or two women and a more succinct telling of the legal battles. Another flaw stems from a strong sense of bias in favor of the women and against everyone else. Moore has strong beliefs about this story and reveals them by characterizing people either as heroines and villains with little room for ambivalence. One suspects that the story would have benefited from a more balanced approach to the information.
“They looked glorious, like otherworldly angels.”
Beginning, around World War 1, a group of young women, “The Shining Girls” were hired to work in dial factories. Here they painted clock and watch faces with a new element called radium. It was a high paying job, for the times and women lined up to get the privilege to work at this coveted job. The women were assured, time and time again that working with this mysterious substance was totally safe and actually beneficial to their health and well-being. And then, one by one, the women began to get sick...and when I say sick, I mean their bones began to deteriorate.
This is a meticulously researched book, about a little known slice of American history. It is also a gut-punch of a book, a real heart-breaker, but it also expresses a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights, as these women fought to be reimbursed for their massive medical expenses and for safety regulations to be implemented. The other triumph of this narrative is that the author puts names to these women, making it a personal story, not just historical stick figures. Highly recommended.
When many of these dial painting employees began having serious medical issues....chronic mouth infections, loose teeth, disintegrating jaw bones, tumors, and even death....their employers turned a blind eye. They said the Radium was harmless, the girls died of other illnesses when they were really hiding what they knew, that the girls had contracted radiation poisoning. They commissioned studies to prove that radium was the cause. They also said that the time to make claims was past, or that the girls had not worked for them for several years, so it was something else that caused their illness. It took years of fighting and public outcry for life-saving regulations to be put in place to protect workers from this scale of work related injury and blatant disregard for employee health and safety. The women, injured by exposure to Radium, had to fight to have their story heard, and it led to work place safety regulations to prevent similar exposure to future workers. They were courageous and fought for what they knew was right. Many of them fighting for the women that came after them as they knew that their illness was terminal.
I listened to this book and it was very well done. The narrator did not change voices etc. but it was not necessary. She sounded believable as the voices of the various women. This book is horrifying and haunting, yet compelling. I'm glad the stories of these women and what they endured isn't being lost to time. This book was the result of a young girl reading a story about this terrible injustice. It may have started over 100 years ago, but their stories and their fight for justice is just as poignant now as it was then. I am not a great reader of non-fiction, but I highly recommend this book to anyone. The audio version was 16 hours long, but it was well worth the time.
Several years later, many of the women began to experience odd and excruciatingly painful health problems often starting with their teeth. As the dentist would extract a tooth, chunks of jaw would come out with it. Soon, at an age when most of them were just old enough to marry and start a family, many of these women, known as the dial girls, began to die.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore tells their story, the joy they had finding a job that paid so well, the envy of others as they glowed all over as the paint residue covered them from head to toe, the horrendous effects as the radium poisoning coursed through their bones, and their long and often bitter fight to get compensation before they died. She tells the story with empathy and insight. The reader gets to know many of the girls as individuals, their personalities, their families, their refusal to back down even as the company, many doctors, and the prosecuting attorney did everything they could to prove that radium was safe. She tells about the people who fought for them against the odds. And she tells of their symptoms and their horrible deaths.
Although this is a book about an important and little-known chapter of American history, Radium Girls is no dry tome. In telling the story of the dial girls, Moore has created one fascinating, compelling, unputdownable page-turner of a book, one I highly recommend to anyone.
Thanks to Netgalley and Sourcebooks for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
“Luminous Processes, declared the local paper, seems to put profits before people.”
‘How quickly we forget.’
Only the most hard -hearted among us could read this book without
The author has obviously done meticulous research about the women who worked for the Radiant Dial Corporation and the United States Radium Corporation beginning in 1917.
The practice of ‘dip, lip, paint’, which was encouraged by the factory, to prevent waste, and to give the brush a sharper point, but exposed the women, who painted luminous dials on watches, with deadly radium. The factories were so popular, due to the wages, which were well above average, and because of the ‘glow’ the women had due to the radium exposure, which they were assured was perfectly safe. Some of the women even painted the substance onto their faces to see themselves glow in the dark.
Five women in particular stood out, as they battled what was termed ‘occupational diseases’, taking their case to court, but there were many more. The court cases were long, hard fought, and had many disappointments before all was said and done. It was a hard battle which lasted for many years, but the effects lingered on for these ladies’ offspring, for years to come.
But, the author really excelled at bringing these women to life, giving them a voice, so to speak. All these women were so very young, so full of life and hope. To hear, in horrific detail, their pain and suffering made for some very difficult reading. Catherine Wolfe Donohoe is one that stood out for me, with her loyal husband, Tom.
The suffering these women endured, was gruesome and unimaginable. Again, I warn you, this material is very graphic, and the author drives this point home with such vividness, I swear my joints and teeth ached.
This is a battle that waged for many years, with the factories refusing to accept that the radium was dangerous, then trying to hide that it was dangerous, by any means.
This is a painful story, one that highlights greed and deceit, but also proves what can happen if you stand up for yourself, speak out, and refuse to give up. The women featured here saved countless lives, while giving their own.
This is a powerful, gut wrenching story, and it’s one that has played out in various forms, since the years highlighted here, with various companies hiding dangers or releasing flawed products onto an unsuspecting public.
These women should never be forgotten and their bravery should set a shining example for anyone who may find themselves in a similar situation. You never know, you may, like the women featured in this book, bring about new standards of health and safety, expose dangers, and force accountability on those only concerned about their own bottom line.
Bravo to Madeline Piller, whose championed these ladies by raising funds for a bronze statue honoring these brave women. The statue was unveiled in 2011, in Ottawa, Illinois.
This rich narrative is written in a way that pulls you into these women's lives, and their individual stories. Fully exploring the background of what these girls faced, not only in the factories, but what awaited them when some were brave enough to challenge their employers, the book brings to life the brave women whose harrowing experiences paved the way for worker's rights. You may have heard of the Radium Girls, but probably never understood just who they were, as individuals, and what some of them endured.
I found this book difficult to read, because, frankly, the effects of radium are nightmarish. However, what happened to these women is important to learn about, and I felt obligated to read the book. And, admittedly, the book was fascinating to read. The author has a vivid writing style which brings these women to life, and makes what happen to them very real --- you cannot read this book and not feel affected. While I knew a bit of the history behind this story, I was unaware of much of the history, including the fact that there was a radium-dial factory in Ottawa, Illinois. Being from Illinois, I was surprised I didn't know about this, and also didn't know that the court case brought by some of these women was a major case for the Illinois Industrial Commission (now known as the Worker's Compensation Commission), a court I am personally very familiar with. I finished this book with a lump in my throat and a much better understanding of what happened to these women.
By the way, lest you think that something like this could only happen back in the 1920s . . . there was a company using these same kind of unsafe practices, with radium, into the 1970s.
Reading The Radium Girls in our post-Cold War era is an exercise in separating one’s current knowledge and experiences from one’s reading experience to avoid letting them taint one’s feelings or reactions to the girls’ actions. After all, just as laudanum and cocaine were popular medicines in their day, we cannot fault the girls for getting excited about working with radium all day or the rest of the country for the popularity of radium-filled beauty products. The casualness with which everyone, including scientists, handled radium is cringe-inducing to the modern reader but perfectly acceptable during the time of the events. We cannot condemn them nor find fault with them for their actions. It is a surreal reading experience though to read their story and how they would paint their nails and eyelids with radium powder and eat their lunches next to their work stations, etc., and not shudder at their innocence. This then makes you wonder what we are currently doing or using or eating that future generations will view in a similar light. It is a sobering thought.
Where the story takes off though is in the legal battles the girls fight in order to obtain a modicum of financial relief. Again, the modern reader is at a disadvantage because the idea of workers’ compensation or of a company liable for the long-term health and welfare of its employees is an ingrained right in our minds. We have plenty of modern-day context in which companies are held responsible for the ill effects of chemicals or processes used in everyday work environments. To not hold a company responsible is inconceivable to our modern mind. Yet, most of the Radium Girls did feel this way for a long time. Whether their lack of litigious nature (at least initially) is a sign of their innocence or a commentary on the suspicious nature of modern society, that is yet to be determined.
The story is not all innocence though, for the businesses for which the girls worked went to great lengths to prove their own innocence in the lawsuits and protect themselves from culpability. Their actions are simultaneously disturbing and yet not surprising, as a company’s sole purpose is to make money and the radium dial business was big money. Seen from their perspective, they were just trying to maintain their profitability. However, the callousness of capitalism is still disturbing to watch unfold, especially when a company’s employees’ lives are on the line.
Throughout the book, Ms. Moore showcases the girls’ resilience in the face of unspeakable pain and disfigurement. She packs no punches in her descriptions either, assaulting the reader with sparse, take-no-pity descriptions of their illnesses. Even readers with cast-iron stomachs will find themselves nauseous at times, not just because of the descriptions but also because this is not a horror story but real life. Still, feeling sick to one’s stomach is only mildly inconvenient when compared to everything the radium girls faced and suffered at the hands of the court as well as with their health. In The Radium Girls, Ms. Moore makes sure that the legacy of the Radium Girls lives on not just in OSHA-mandated policies and procedures but in the knowledge of their dreams and battles that all readers take away of the girls who once thought their future was a bright and shiny as the powder they painted onto watch dials.
One company even did medical tests on their employees, but never allowed the girls to see the results. The executives saw the results, they knew what was going on and that their employees were being poisoned.
This was all happening around WWI. Years later when these women started having "problems" the radium companies refused to own up to anything. This book tells some of their stories. The good days when they were happy little girls and the bad days when their bodies were full of poison. Most of the women started having problems with their teeth. The radium would insert itself right into the bones of their mouths losing teeth and jaw bones. It affected others in their legs or backs.
This book is a true story and not for the faint of heart. It is also a great book in that the author lets you see these girls/women before and after. While they were sharing each other's misery and tears, I was right there with them doing the same. Well, the tears part anyway. I couldn't imagine the pain or misery.
Definitely one of the best books I've read this year.
Thanks to Sourcebooks for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley for an honest, unbiased review.
The focus is almost entirely on the 11 women who testified in court between 1928 and 1938 and the others whose stories they shared or for whom documentation survives. The author used the testimonies, interviews, and personal letters (when available) to construct likely thoughts, motivations, and daily habits for the women. This gave the book a very moving narrative that alternated between Orange, NJ, and Ottawa, IL, as it nested the stories chronologically.
Some of the writing was frustrating to me, though I concede that it certainly made the book more sensational and gripping. I didn't like that every person in the book gets a value-judgment description. We were provided photos of most of the main characters, but still get told that someone has "baby-faced good looks" or "features too small for her face" - what does that last one even mean? the person in the photograph has a perfectly normal face! The tic of always saying "fashionable bob" when describing a woman's short hair almost made me want to start a drinking game.
I also didn't like that there was a lot of supposition about daily lives or intimate thoughts put into the narrative, when there are plenty of actual letters and first-hand accounts that tell the story perfectly compellingly without supposing exactly what the person was thinking as they stepped into the street. (Or maybe they did write down their thoughts, and the author just neglected to allude to the letter or diary where they were recorded.) There are extensive references notes in the back, but they aren't very easy to check, and there are no footnotes or other indicators within the text that a reference note is available when there is no allusion to how a fact is known.
Finally, I really hated that throughout the book, the women are called "girls". It's minor I suppose, but even when the teenage girls have grown up and some have married and had children, they're still referred to as "girls", and rarely as women. It was a little jarring when the narrative explicitly points out in several places how the women were brushed aside as less than fully human, basically, which is what "girls" does when they are contrasted so often to the men around them.
I found this to be a very interesting book and gained valuable insight into OSHA, etc., and the context of certain old movies I enjoy (especially 1937's satirical screwball comedy Nothing Sacred), but I wish the narration were leaner and that the notes section was better.
As the years passed, many of the dial painters fell ill with a bewildering array of symptoms, including severe anemia, very breakable bones (especially jawbones) and constant pain. The women were victims of radium poisoning, but the arrogant executives they worked for did everything they could to assure the public that working with radium, even "lip-pointing", was perfectly safe. It wasn't until a group of "radium girls" from Ottawa, Illinois found a dedicated lawyer and fought a hard-won court case that the companies were forced to pay compensation to those harmed by the radioactive paint.
Kate Moore's Radium Girls is about the human side of this terrible, preventable tragedy. She shares the stories of several of the more prominent dial painters, and writes of their courage in the face of suffering as well as their determination to receive justice, not only for themselves but for their families and future generations of workers as well.
This book is a brilliant, moving, at times infuriating tribute that should be read by everyone who cares about workers' rights.