Review by Georgiena Bobbie Robinson
Context matters. I mean that in terms of the context in which I read. Sometimes, I put a book aside as not relevant, not interesting, or just not the right book at the right time. Currently, my context is the COVID-19 pandemic and my safer-at-home lockdown. For escape, I’ve turned to books, but perhaps oddly, to non-fiction. The more dire the situation, the more tragic the true story, the better I feel. In troubled times, I find solace. In tales of disaster, I discover courage and resilience, pain and
perseverance, hope and victory. Everywhere these books take me, I find context for understanding what we face today and lessons for living through catastrophe. In the early spring of the pandemic, Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile (2020) and
Black Death at the Golden Gate (2019) by David K. Randall were gripping page-turners.
So is The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (2016) by Kate Moore. Moore took me to the radium-dial factories of Newark and Orange, New Jersey and then to Illinois through a story I had never heard before. During World War I, young women from working-class families found good-paying jobs painting watches and other instruments that glowed in the dark for the military. After the war, the desire for these watches exploded, factories expanded production, and the women recruited their younger sisters and friends to join them at companies such as Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, United States Radium Corporation, and Radium Dial Corporation.
The Radium Girls, as they were called, were excited to be front and center at the radium craze. Discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, radium was rare and one of the most valuable commodities in the world. Two decades later, radium was considered a wonder drug, a cure-all for just about everything. Consumers drank radium potions and swallowed radium pills; the wealthy went to radium clinics and spas. Products from jock straps to mosquito sprays claimed, often falsely, to contain radium. The radium dial factories engaged the girls in an important war effort, painting luminous airplane instruments, gunsights, and ship’s compasses. This was a job for women – some as young as 14 – with excellent fine motor skills. Many earned more than their laborer fathers and brothers. The radium girls enjoyed the female
camaraderie of the factory floor; they bought nice clothes and danced the nights away with eligible young men; they were happy; they glowed.
Quite literally, the women glowed. As they painted, they mastered the technique of dipping the fine camel-haired brushes into the radium paint, then their mouths to wet the brush into an even finer point. Paid by the piece, their goal was to paint the
small dials as precisely and quickly as possible. With every dip, the girls swallowed the radioactive substance. Despite their care not to waste paint, the fine dust covered their hands, their hair and their clothes. When they walked home together at night,
hung their glowing dresses in their closets, and stood in front of a mirror, the girls “fairly shone in the dark,” like “otherworldly angels.”
By 1921, the first of the Radium Girls was sick. Teeth fell out, jaws crumbled, bone cancers grew, women failed to conceive or miscarried. Through the 1920s and 30s, many died painful deaths, some quickly, some slowly. Initially, the girls, their dentists and their doctors made no connection to their work. When the first finally did,
linking their own illnesses with those of friends and co-workers, the companies denied that the paint could be the cause. Radium, after all, was harmless, they testified.
The Radium Girls is the story of the courageous women and a handful of doctors and
lawyers who take on powerful corporations and a legal system determined to thwart them at every turn, calculating that they can outlive the dying women. Company officials lie and cover-up; mayors and chambers of commerce welcome jobs during the Great Depression; neighbors turn on the women and their families; victims of radium poisoning die. The not-yet-dead fight on. Though few of the Radium Girls themselves would benefit, eventually laws were written, saving other lives.
Kate Moore uncovers the lives of these women and makes their heartbreaking story
personal. She shows us that the fight for workers’ rights and lives never ends, but that change is possible. The Radium Girls belong with The Jungle’s meatpackers and the Triangle Shirtwaist women in our history lessons. In our Covid-19 pandemic times, the fight for workers’ lives continues; the Radium Girls light the way.