The incredible true story of the women who fought America’s Undark danger
The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.
Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.
But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.
Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…From Goodreads.
Publisher: Source Books
Date read: 25 July 2020
Most people are in some part familiar with the story of “America’s shining women” – the dial painters of the First World War that are at once symbolic of a new wave of women’s liberation and horrific treatment in the workplace. My knowledge of the radium girls was largely limited to the legend of poisoned women whose corpses are still radioactive a century later, glowing bones in lead-lined coffins. I was completely, irrevocably unprepared for the harrowing tale of these women’s fight for justice against an institution determined to silence them by any means necessary.
The Radium Girls is a story filled with irony that might be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. As mentioned above, these are women finally liberated by their access to the workplace, yet doomed in that very liberation to early, painful deaths. Their legal battle against the United States Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company is remembered as a watershed moment in the fight for worker’s rights, yet it could not save their own lives. The very tone of the book contradicts its devastating subject matter: the women’s voices ring out with strength and hope for a better future in spite of their disintegrating, radium-riddled bodies.
I was startled by the intensity of my response to this story and its layered paradoxes. It’s not often that I find myself so angry or so heartbroken that I physically have to put a book down for a few hours. The Radium Girls is difficult to process, partially because of the corporeal horrors that these women endured, but also because their story fits into a long, sinister history of the invalidation of women’s health. Every woman I know has had a traumatic experience in the healthcare system because their symptoms were not taken seriously. Insufferable pain is frequently attributed to hormonal fluctuations; illness or discomfort to weight gain; and mental trauma to “hysteria” or “nerves”. But what more can we expect from a medical system designed with male bodies in mind, and an industrial (and social) system that sees women as hysterical liars?
Consequently, the devastating component of the dial painters’ tale is worsened by the infuriating treatment they suffered at the hands of powerful men. When women brought their complaints to the company-appointed doctors – disintegrating jaw-bones, shortening leg-bones, tumours “larger than two footballs”, sarcomas on legs, on knees, on hips, on eyes, on spines… – the men responded (and were instructed to respond) with condescension and lies to protect the extremely profitable luminous paint industry. William Ganley, the executive of the Radium Dial Company, declared, “I can’t recall a single actual victim of this so-called ‘radium poisoning’ in our Ottawa plant,” calling women’s claims to radium-related illness “invalid and illegitimate”. “Breast cancer,” one executive said in response to the rapid rise in cancer-afflicted dial painters, “is thought to be a hormonal problem, not a radioactivity hazard.” One physician complained of Katherine Moore: “I am really at a loss what to do with this highly hysterical woman.”
Kate Moore’s shining achievement (excuse the pun) is her exquisite humanisation of each dial painter, providing the women not only with voices and faces, but with agency, personhood, desires, hopes, flaws, failures… This intricate attention to the lives these women led is what transforms the story of lethal luminous paint into a human disaster, a tragedy with dire consequences for hundreds of young women and their families. On her website Moore writes that she wanted to tell the story of the radium girls “as a readable, chronological narrative account”, to “put the girls at centre stage and allow them to speak after all these years”. Her writing style – which she describes as “narrative non-fiction” – allows her to shape historical fact into a highly accessible, engaging story that refuses to sacrifice accuracy for entertainment. And that story resonates with a note of authenticity thanks to Moore’s extensive use of first-person accounts, which foreground the voices of the radium girls and their families. The result is a book that has astonishing success in its aim to “bring life to the individual women and make them real: not just anonymous ‘radium girls’, but real women with personalities, passions and loved ones.”
The story of the radium girls is not one to be forgotten. This is not a myth of faceless radioactive corpses whose bones glow in the dark. Nor is it a legend of hysterical women who caused a great deal of fuss for some very powerful, very influential, very wealthy men. It is not even a story of brutal injustice, of institutionalised indifference, of dismissal and dishonesty and disregard for the lives of vulnerable workers.
It is the story of Ella Eckert, Grace Fryer, Helen Quinlan, Catherine Wolfe Donohue, Inez Vallat, Peg Looney, Pearl Payne, and countless others who did not back down even when their very bones crumbled beneath them. It is the story of their fight for justice – for themselves and for all the workers to follow them. It is the story of the legacy they left in science and in workplace safety standards. It is the story of dial-painters in 1917, of radium plant workers in 1978, of Samsung employees in Korea like Hwang Yumi in 2007, of Lowe’s Home Improvement workers exposed to methylene chloride in 2018, of Amazon employees ill-equipped to face a pandemic in 2020… It is the story of the single person who, as you read this, has died from toxic exposure in the workplace. And the next, who will suffer the same fate 30 seconds from now.
It is an inconvenient story for those profiting off of human lives. And it is one that I will not be forgetting any time soon.