Title: The Radium Girls
Author: Kate Moore
Rating Out of 5: 5 (I will read this again and again and again)
My Bookshelves: Feminism, History, Memoirs, Non-fiction
Dates read: 30th April – 5th May 2019
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
5th sentence, 74th page: The girls of Radium Dial, outside their studio; forever young and happy and well.
All they wanted was the chance to shine. Be careful what you wish for…
‘The first we asked was, “Does this stuff hurt you?” And they said, “No.” The company said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.’
As the First World War spread across the world, young American women flocked to work in factories, painting clocks, watches and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous – the girls shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in dust from the paint.
However, as the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. It turned out that the very thing that had made them feel alive – their work – was slowly killing them: the radium paint was poisonous.
Their employers denied all responsibility, but these courageous women – in the face of unimaginable suffering – refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice.
Drawing on previously unpublished diaries, letter and interviews, The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.
There are books that will completely change your world. Reconfigure everything that you think, believe and feel and make the whole world slot into a new form. That’s what this book was for me. When I bought this book, when I first started reading it, I was fully expecting an intriguing tale. One that would be about some amazingly strong women in the past. But not anything beyond a really good read. I was wrong. I felt like my entire reality was shattered and then remade as I read this.
I had no idea that radium was something that was once used in industrial processes. Really, my only knowledge of this element comes from the fact that Marie Curie discovered it. That, and I know that it is very, very dangerous and kills people who come into contact with it. Beyond that knowledge, all I knew about the potential for this story was that these girls used radium paint and were all going to die. That in and of itself was going to be a tragic enough story. But then the large companies and legalities of their fight started to make its way into the storyline… cue a number of very late nights because I couldn’t wait to find out how the bad men were going to get their legal comeuppance.
We don’t think much about many of the health and safety legislations that we all tend to obey. Or at least, I know that I don’t. I don’t really worry all that much about whether my place of employment is adhering to the laws. I just figure that they are, and I’m not going to get sick and die from their activities. Mostly, I still want to believe this, but after reading about a bunch of young girls who felt the same thing, and got burned for it… I’m a little less willing to follow anything on blind faith. After all, even when the girls questioned whether their activities were safe, they were still reassured. Repeatedly. And then they died.
This story might not have had an overarching happy ending. But it did have a triumphant one. Though so many women lost their lives before they could gain compensation for their trauma, many more were able to stand on the shoulders of those before them and find a way to get justice. And their legacy remains today in every moment that makes businesses culpable for their actions. In the amount of knowledge that we now have about the long-term effects of radioactivity, and in the understanding in why it is important to fight for what’s right. Even in the face of insurmountable odds.
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