Review: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

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Whether you’re into history, legal drama, or medical mysteries, non-fiction bestseller The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women has something for you. Author Kate Moore uses intimately personal details to weave together the tragic and compelling story of the Radium Girls, young women who grasped an opportunity and wound up suffering more greatly than any of them could imagine. Ultimately, this book carries a message of hope; it’s a story of the underdog triumphing over the powerful against all odds. But be warned – this book verges on horror as it unflinchingly describes the gruesome injuries suffered by these women, including broken jawbones, missing teeth, abscesses, sarcomas, and broken bones, as well as the emotional and legal toll that their fight had on them and their families.

In 1917, young, working-class women were given what they thought was the opportunity of a lifetime as radium companies opened studios and hired hundreds of “dial painters.” Their job was to precisely paint watches and military dials with the new and exciting element radium in order to make them glow in the dark. For the radium companies, business was booming, especially after the United States entered WWI. They needed to recruit many young women, whose small hands were well-suited for the painting work, and were able to pay the wages to do it. Dial painting quickly became known as “the elite job for the poor working girls.” Many of the girls were able to even out-earn their fathers since dial painting paid more than three times the average factory job at the time. Girls brought their friends, siblings, and cousins with them – sometimes all of the young women in a family would be employed as dial painters, and they would consider themselves lucky to have the job.

Radium was new, having only been discovered twenty years earlier by Marie Curie, and fascination with the glowing element was high. As the girls worked, the radium from the paint sifted through the air and settled all over them – their hair, their hands, their faces. Dial painters soon became known as the “ghost girls” since after finishing their shifts, they themselves would glow in the dark too. The dial painters considered this a benefit of the job, wearing their good dresses to the plant so they’d literally shine when they went out with friends or suitors at night.

In order to achieve the desired effect for painting each dial, the girls were instructed to slip their paintbrushes between their lips to make a fine point — a practice called lip-pointing. Though it was known that radium could be harmful – even discoverer Marie Curie had been burned and the men who worked at radium factories took precautions such as wearing lead aprons – it was not thought at that time that exposure to small amounts of radium was harmful. Products containing radium were even sold as curatives and health tonics.

However, as time went by and the next decade began, the dial painters started to get sick. They aged rapidly, becoming stooped and crippled as the radium that they had ingested whittled away at their bones. They developed cancers. They lost children. Their teeth, and eventually entire jawbones, dropped from their mouths. However, the radium companies willfully shut their eyes to any evidence that their illnesses were caused by radium and used legal tricks, paid-off “experts,” and fraudulent medical procedures to try to absolve themselves of any legal or financial responsibility to these seriously ill women.

The women were called liars. They were shunned in their communities as they brought lawsuits against the radium companies, many of whom were important employers, as the economy in the United States began its fateful downturn in the mid-20’s. Sometimes doctors and medical examiners said the women suffered or died because of venereal diseases in order to damage their reputations and shift the blame onto another culprit.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

Kate Moore’s book tells the story of the Radium Girls’ fight against the big radium companies and of the lawyers, scientists, and doctors that aided them in their effort. The work that they did impacted labor laws throughout the country and showed that justice was achievable with hard work and determination. This book honors their suffering and the difference that they made in our society – and reminds us that we ignore science only at our own peril.

Written by Kimberly Bond

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