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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

Review

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

In the first decades of the 20th century, young women in New Jersey, Illinois and elsewhere learned that they could make almost as much money as their fathers. They eagerly flocked to factories where they would paint watch dials with a radium compound. Their products would help soldiers tell time after dark, with the mysterious element called, eerily, “Undark.” Their exposure to Undark would permanently darken their lives, causing many to die, sometimes in a shockingly short time.

As told by Sunday Times bestselling writer Kate Moore, hundreds of bright women, some still in their teens, would be permanently crippled and killed off by the radium used in dial-painting. Katherine Schaub, Grace Fryer, Albina Larice, Catherine Donohue and others were victimized by the labor practices of the time, and by their lowly status as females. Male owners of companies like U.S. Radium were aware of the dangers of this fascinating element, discovered by female scientist Marie Curie and known to have certain medicinal properties when used with extreme care. They urged the factory girls to touch the radium-laden brushes to their lips to make a more accurate covering. In doing so, they were less likely to cause smudges that would cost them when their piecework was priced out, so the girls obediently did as told. Those who asked about exposure were told that the radium mix was safe --- healthy, even --- and that they were lucky to be ingesting it.

"Moore has brought the Radium Girls to life, highlighting their personalities and private lives for the first time.... She has successfully depicted them as real people, bravely banding together and refusing to give up..."

Their gradually, or sometimes suddenly, developing symptoms --- considering the limited range of treatments available at the time and the ready way that their complaints were dismissed by company operatives --- are nothing short of gruesome, with a few photographs for corroboration. Early pictures of the girls, protagonists in a lengthy and finally successful lawsuit, contrasted with later photos, show visible deterioration. Donohue, wretchedly hobbling in to court, finally collapsed and had to deliver final testimony in bed at her home scant days before she died. Since radium attacks the bones, women had escalating tumors in knees, feet, jawbones and the spine. One woman bled for more than 80 days. When these women passed away, the cause of death would be listed as viral, or infectious. Shamefully, it was not until a male doctor died that the women’s complaints were finally examined in fuller detail.

It is difficult in our times to realize that just a hundred years ago, women were treated as cruelly as animals, and laborers were given no rights or recourse whatsoever in clear cases of workplace abuse. The Radium Girls changed those trends to a greater extent than they could have realized, by their determination and fortitude, fighting through the courts for compensation when some were nearly moribund.

Moore has brought the Radium Girls to life, highlighting their personalities and private lives for the first time. She set out to tell this story from the perspective of the girls, their families, their hopes and aspirations. She has successfully depicted them as real people, bravely banding together and refusing to give up, despite insults and mockery from their employers and a tough uphill battle through the legal system. Still the sad truth remains: “It is impossible,” Moore states, “to say how many dial-painters were killed by their work.” Many others were afflicted with cancers in later life, or endured pain, crippling and childlessness.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 4, 2017

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women
by Kate Moore

  • Publication Date: April 18, 2017
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks
  • ISBN-10: 149264935X
  • ISBN-13: 9781492649359