The Radium Girls (2016) by Kate Moore
I’m on page 200 of 403. This well-researched nonfiction book tells the story of the young women who started working in radium-dial factories just before WWI. Glow-in-the-dark products were gaining popularity, and WWI would significantly increase the demand for them. The dial painters were taught to point the bristles of their brushes with their tongues–called lip pointing–in order to paint fine lines. Supervisors told the painters there was so little radium in the paint that it was harmless.
As factory owners and managers learned that traces of radium weren’t harmless, they hid that information from the dial painters because lip pointing was an efficient, inexpensive method for painting dials, and because they didn’t want workers to become fearful and quit. About five years after the dial painters began ingesting radium, they started suffering painful side effects which were fatal. After the consequences of radium paint became known and proved, companies who employed dial painters kept denying that the radium was dangerous.
One of the women harmed by the radium, found a lawyer who agreed to represent her and some of the other sick women. The companies used high-powered attorneys, lies, and rumors to try and thwart the sick women from winning their lawsuits. Moore skillfully captures the twists and turns of the legal battle between the radium-dial companies and the women who sought compensation. I don’t know how their legal battle ends yet, but I’m rooting for the women.
As I read Moore’s book, I care about the young women, who never grew old. I care about the families they left behind. I want the companies and their executives to be held accountable for their cold indifference to the lives of these women. As I read this story, it strikes me that not much has changed. The story of the women harmed by the profit-minded radium dial companies is the kind of story that still happens today, both in our country and throughout the world.
Stories like The Radium Girls are important because companies still lobby for fewer regulations and for changes to laws that make it more difficult for a harmed person to sue. Without regulatory laws or the ability to sue bad actors in a court of law, people are left to the mercy of those who value their company’s bottom line above all else. The Radium Girls reminds us that we need laws to hold companies liable for their actions.
Every evening I look forward to ignoring the TV and reading The Radium Girls. Moore’s writing is excellent. I’m thankful she told the story of the doomed women who started out loving their jobs and believed their companies were wonderful places to work. We can honor the radium girls by remembering them and by valuing the lives of all workers.
[If you’re interested in hearing Kate Moore talk about The Radium Girls and her newest book, The Woman They Could Not Silence (2021) Click here: Honest Dog Books.]
I’ve been debating whether or not I want to read this. On one hand, I love books about history and it seems important, on the other hand, I have this feeling it will be depressing. I think I’ll wait until after her appearance at Honest Dog Books to make a final decision.
The author does a good job of balancing the depiction of radium poisoning and the women’s quest for treatment with other stories of their lives. The reader can take comfort in the stories of the doctors and the lawyers that worked to help the women. Overall, it’s a sad story. But it’s an important story because even though it happened in the early decades of the 1900s, it’s a cautionary tale about how, even today, corporations with deep pockets can avoid taking responsibility for their negligent behavior.
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Always good to hear little known history about women and their exploitation. Showing, again, nothing changes until someone stands up to change it. I wish the law said to greedy companies, ” “Prove you are not responsible” instead of the expensive burden that says you are. Yeah! Lawyers who use their skills for societal good!
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I read this book a few years ago for a women in STEM book club and absolutely loved it! Glad to hear you’re also enjoying it!
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