I really love narrative non-fiction and The Radium Girls by Kate Moore utterly entranced me. I first learned about the Radium Girls from a few paragraphs in The Emperor of All Maladies, which I’m still reading, but as soon as I saw this book come through on my library website I had to borrow it immediately. Edited from Goodreads:
As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights.
This could almost be classified as a true crime book the way that the radium industry lead women (and while we’re at it, Americans as a whole) to believe that the extremely dangerous chemical element was a curative, while in fact it slowly (or in some cases quickly) poisoned these innocent factory workers. It’s yet another perfect example of corporate greed for money and power at the expense of human lives. These innocent women suffered horrific pain and disfigurements as the radium took hold of their bones after weeks, months, years of dipping their brushes in the chemical-laced paint and between their lips. (I don’t like to even go through the full-body scanners at the airport… I always refuse, in fact.) I listened to The Radium Girls on audiobook so I suppose there may be images I missed in the paper book, so I can only imagine what their “glowing” and deteriorating bodies must have looked like, and it chills me to my (non-glowing) bones.
If I have one complaint, it’s that there are so many women covered that at times I had a little trouble keeping track of them all, but maybe that was a downfall of listening on audio with no pictures to place faces to names for me. Despite that, I’m glad this was told from a human perspective, focusing on not only the women’s personalities and lives but also their families, doctors, and lawyers and how they were all in this together. Moore did a fantastic job researching everyone involved and conveying the hardships and triumphs in The Radium Girls. It’s important to note that the EPA is still—now, today—cleaning up one of the radium dial company’s sites in Ottawa, Illinois, which was active during the time period of this book all the way into the 1970s.
I was in awe of the strength, sisterhood, and tenacity of these women who fought the system for safety disclosures in the workplace, amounting to an epic win for workers’ rights—sometimes fighting literally from their deathbed until their final breaths. I have to admit I felt a small sense of pride as a woman reading this account, which brings this now-immortal phrase to mind: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” The Radium Girls is a heartbreaking and fascinating book about a hidden part of women’s and labor histories in America.
Listened to audiobook in May 2017.