Nonfiction

The Radium Girls

This was the July book chosen for my long-distance book club. Basically, one of our members just really wanted to read it and we all voted to go along with that. Haha. But honestly, I’m super happy that’s how it happened. I had heard of this one, but I know for sure that I would never have picked it up if it hadn’t been voted on as a book club pick (a big “pro” for book clubs right there). And now that I’ve finished, I am so glad that I have read it and know these women’s stories.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore 

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“Norman Thomas, […] a socialist politician who was often called “the conscience of America,” declared that [this] case was ‘a vivid example of the ways of an unutterably selfish capitalist system which cares nothing about the lives of its workers, but seeks only to guard its profits.’”

This nonfiction piece tells the stories of the women who worked painting clock faces with radium-based paint (to make the dials glow), starting as early as 1917 in the United States. This book focuses on the women in a few small towns in New Jersey and Illinois who jumped at the chance to both make money (because the money was good) and to help their country (there were many military contracts for these types of glow-in-the-dark dials) during the war. The seems like an innocuous situation, except for the fact that radium is a radioactive substance. And, though we all know now how bad radium is for the human body, how much damage it can inflict on unprotected people, that information was not widely known then. In fact, it was touted for years as a beneficial health supplement, sold in tonics and other curatives. However, even if, at the beginning, it is reasonable that precautions were not undertaken to protect the girls working in the factories, it (fairly quickly) became clear that many of the painters were getting sick, really sick, and suffering all sorts of negative health effects (brittle/broken bones, tooth/jaw decay and falling out, pain, sarcoma, and more). However, although suspicions among the workers and their doctors that radium poisoning was the cause, (and even more than that, direct warnings from radium scientists and doctors that it was the cause), the radium dial companies not only ignored this information, they actively covered up the risks and lied to the girls about radium, telling them all it was completely safe. This in-depth novel tells the stories of these women, their health battles, their fight for recognition of the workplace cause of those health issues, and the legal struggle to get compensation from the companies for, essentially, ruining their lives.

Oh my goodness, this was such a difficult book to read. Even though the story is no surprise, since the inside flap tells you the general gist of it, reading the details was a challenge. It is horrifying, heartbreaking and incredibly angering to read how badly these women were taken advantage of time and again. How major companies, with profits on the line, chose over and over to put those profits ahead of the health and well-being of their employees. In the afterward, Moore talks about how she was inspired to write about these women’s plights after realizing that all the related literature that was already published focused primarily on the scientific and legal aspects of the situation. And, of course, while those aspects are super important, since they are the reason the US now has the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to prevent (as much as possible) further tragedies of this kind, she felt that the individual stories should be given similar honor. These women suffered for decades to win these workers’ rights battles, and they deserve to have their own stories know. And she did that with aplomb. Using quotes from family and friends, letters/correspondence of the women themselves, and more, Moore presents us with stirring pictures of the lives of the lead women in this fight. Reading how the effects of radium poisoning cause early death, dismemberment and other disability, disease, infertility, anemia/weakness, and many other forms of wasting away, and how all of that devastated the women’s hopes and dreams, their families, their day-to-day lives, their finances and more…it was almost too much. (In particular, for me, I have a phobia of tooth-loss and other mouth issues…and reading how much the radium painting demolished that part of the body in particular was so hard that sometimes I actually had to stop and take calming breaths.) Yet, to see their strength through the long fight for recognition and compensation, their efforts to vindicate themselves and their friends, and their never-ending hope for justice and a cure (even in the face of, essentially, certain death…they were literally referred to as the “living dead” in newspaper articles of the time) is just beyond inspiring.

There are a few cautions I want to point out, to anyone looking to read this. It is long. And it’s heavy. The details are thorough, but at times overwhelming. And so many names of dial painters (in the first few chapters) and doctors/lawyers (in later chapters) are thrown at us, as readers, that I got quite lost in them. It was a bit much to take in to start. So be ready for that. And truly, don’t worry overly much. The “main” names will be mentioned often enough throughout the rest of the book that you’ll get used to them and it’ll get easier to follow eventually. To that end, I also recommend the audiobook. The narrator is great and it really helped me keep moving through the story without getting bogged down in the specifics (especially as they relate to the legal/media minutiae). I came away understanding the overarching themes/issues/points more than enough, without spending extra time nailing down each development as it came up. This was a very compellingly written compilation of many different voices/stories, but it is also nonfiction and the journalistic tone at times got a little dry. So yes, the audiobook was very helpful for pushing through those moments. And it was worth pushing through them to read and know the whole, overall, story. Because it’s a tragedy how completely unaware I, and I assume the majority of America is, about this pivotal situation in our history, for women, and for workers in general.

I finished reading this book having learned so much, and vacillating between unbelievable anger (both that this happened and that large corporations still have the power to screw with employees lives in today’s America, in perhaps different, but still very harmful ways…have we learned nothing??) and soul-filling hope at the power of spirit these women maintained through it all. Eye-opening, educational, and a wonderful homage to an inspiring group of women whose stories deserve to be honored and remembered.

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9 thoughts on “The Radium Girls

    1. Wonderful! Yes it was definitely out of the “norm” for me too and I am so grateful for a book club making me pick it up. I learned so much and really it was fascinating to read about some of the history of worker’s rights in the US and, really, how the issues of corporations’ rights and profit being more important that people was ALWAYS a thing in the country, it was just easier to bury before social media, etc. Frustrating and angering but totally worth reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I know this is such an important book, but I for sure won’t be able to read it. (I also have a thing about teeth!) I’m glad to know that they list up front the things that might be disturbing/uncomfortable for readers. Still, this is such an important part of history and I’m glad that this book is shedding light on it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – those parts were super hard to read, so I totally understand. It’s amazing how many stories there are, issues and struggles that were people’s whole lives, that I have no idea about. That’s why I love reading so much…all those stories deserve to be told/known.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. RIGHT?! I was so angry through most of my time reading this. And this same type of shit is still happening in the US and I just do not understand how! Ugh. But also these women were so inspiring to read about and I so appreciated this chance to learn about them.

      Liked by 1 person

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