The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
I’m continuing to play catch up – The Radium Girls was the Nonfiction Book Club selection for July and while I say I’m going to be better about posting in a timely manner, daily posts for the bookstore blog eat up a LOT of time. But if it’s for a store book club, it can count as work, right? Just kidding, definitely writing this at home late at night!
From the publisher marketing:
In the dark years of the First World War, 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. 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. And, until they begin to come forward.
As the women start to speak out on the corruption, the factories that once offered golden opportunities ignore all claims of the gruesome side effects. 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. A timely story of corporate greed and the brave figures that stood up to fight for their lives, these women and their voices will shine for years 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…
If you ever have the recurring nightmare about your teeth disintegrating and falling out as I do, the first few chapters of this you may want to skim, fair warning given here that it gets a bit overly descriptive. If this is not a nightmare that has plagued you in the past, it may due so after you read it, or at least a few book club members who had not yet experienced it now do. Again, fair warning.
I knew very little about The Radium Girls when one of our book club members put it forth for voting when we were looking at new books (actually, the same book club member who put forth The Lady from the Black Lagoon for last month) and all I heard was radium and assumed it was related to Marie Curie, who has always fascinated me. And while Marie didn’t feature in the story, the stories that Kate Moore uncovers are absolutely astonishing.
During the First World War, radium based paint was used to illuminate dials on everything from watches to airplane instruments, the latter being absolutely essential to the burgeoning air forces of the allied nations. The dials were painted in studios where young women worked, young women ranging anywhere from 14 to 25 years old at the start of their employment. This being the beginning of the 20th century, most women would leave upon getting married so it was definitely a young woman’s occupation with a few exceptions.
The young women working the dial painting studios thought they had hit the jackpot – they were well paid, independent, and had access to luminescent paint to cover themselves in before dates and dances. But the young women had no idea of the dangers their jobs put them in. They were instructed to put the paint brushes into their mouths to “lip point” the bristles, making them coalesce into a fine point in which to paint the dials. They were instructed, basically, to ingest radium.
Cue the teeth falling out scenes. As the years progressed, the young women found their bones were turning necrotic, tumors growing in their bodies, they struggled with infertility, and if they did have children, many had health difficulties their whole lives, and many of the young women ultimately lost their lives to the radium poisoning before their 30th birthdays. Parents lost multiple children as the factories tended to employ siblings and young children, already without their fathers due to the war, lost their mothers as well.
I was shocked and appalled about how the owners and supervisors of the studios treated them women when they tried to seek compensation for their medical bills. Legislation existed to protect those with work related injuries, but radium was believed to be harmless. The studios and radium companies paid for the studies to say so at the time to discredit the women. They were shunned and their communities refused to believe that such a decent employer could be responsible for their struggles.
While many of the women died before their cases made their way to court, a few did and were successful, but ultimate tied up in appeals for years. The lack of information and safety guidelines persisted well into the late 20th century with the same radium factories seeing increases in employees being diagnosed with cancer. Nothing had changed.
Kate presents the stories of numerous young women with care, compassion, and a deep sense of empathy. With their whole lives before them, they’re struck down by a poisoning they did not willingly submit themselves to. It is a story of shock and awe, disgust with the corporate hierarchy protecting their own asses, and dismay that women’s lives were treated so negligently. It’s an important read for anyone interested in little known histories and stories that deserve to be shouted from the rooftops. Let us not forget the shining women.
Rating: 8 out of 10