Title: The Radium Girls
Author: Kate Moore
Format: eBook, courtesy of NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS (non-fiction)
Secondary Format: audiobook, read by Angela Brazil
Start Date: May 18, 2017
End Date: May 25, 2017
Rating: 4.5 stars
The individual women who had fought and died for justice had been eclipsed by their historic achievements; they were now known only by the anonymous moniker of “the Radium Girls.” Their unique experiences – their losses and their loves; their triumphs and their terrors – had been forgotten, if ever charted in the first place.
According to the author, there have only been two other biographies written about the struggle of the collective “Radium Girls” to fight for justice from their unsafe working conditions, but none of them really told the stories of the girls beyond their “anonymous moniker.”
That is what Kate Moore sought to do.
The tone of The Radium Girls reminded me a little of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (mini-review here). In both, the authors sought to add a personal touch to each of these women’s lives as they told of their struggles to be heard. Hidden Figures gives an account of the women instrumental in working toward breaking the color barrier to be taken seriously as mathematicians, not only at NASA but across the nation. The Radium Girls tells of a brave group of women fighting to be heard (and believed) that they were suffering and dying from deadly radium poisoning, and their battles through the courts to get compensation for their growing medical debts.
The author held little back in describing some of the medical conditions of these women. Not for the squeamish. The horrors these women had to go through – losing their teeth, their jaw bones literally cracking and falling out in pieces, and the constant pain (in backs, knees, arms, feet, etc.) – is quite literally terrifying.
And even through their suffering, they fought. They fought for justice for themselves, for their friends, for their sisters. And, eventually, they won.
“I always admired their strength,” said Catherine Donohue’s great niece, “to stand up and unite.”
And, united, they triumphed. Through their friendships, through their refusal to give up and through their sheer spirit, the radium girls left us all an extraordinary legacy. They did not die in vain.
They made every second count.
Although not an easy fight, the “Radium Girls” prevailed, in the end.
Even though many of the girls did not live long enough to get their own personal justice, their strength and resilience through their countless lawsuits provided safe working conditions for others who came after them, like those working on the Manhattan Project.
An official of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) wrote: “If it hadn’t been for these dial-painters, the [Manhattan] project’s management could have reasonably rejected the extreme precautions that were urged on it and thousands of workers might well have been, and might still be, in great danger.” The women had been, officials say, “invaluable.”
This story is hard to hear, but it is a story that must be told so that history does not repeat itself.
It was horrifying to read to what lengths some companies would go through to keep themselves afloat, putting profit before their own loyal workers, and how willfully malicious they could be. NEVER should a company put their profits above the health and safety of their employees. It’s despicable.
Even as the men in charge learned of the dangers of radium, they refused to believe (or admit) that it was harmful to their employees, and thus refused to implement costly safety precautions to improve working conditions. Many of these cases could have been prevented if upper management had cared more about their workers’ safety.
But, hindsight is 20/20.
This was a really interesting read, and I think the author did a great job of incorporating some of the personal triumphs of the girls – friendships, marriages, children – with the harsh realities the girls were facing. Even though I knew the general outcome, the way the author wrote and organized the chain of events made me care about these girls from the past and learn how they got justice and recompense.
They suffered from radium poisoning, they fought a groundbreaking case, and they ultimately prevailed and found justice, though not in time to benefit all those girls affected.It is a powerfully resounding story of determination even in the face of adversity, and it’s a story that needs to be told.
I’d give this book an overall rating of 4.5/5 stars for the quality of writing and bringing to light the historical significance of these strong girls who fought so hard for justice. Thank you to NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS (non-fiction) for a copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review.
The print version of this book is actually really interesting because it includes an insert in the middle with pictures of several of the radium girls and other notable people mentioned throughout the book, from both sides of the table. It allows the reader to put a face to the name, or even gain a better understanding of what the women themselves were going through.
Even almost one hundred years later, their story is not forgotten. In 2011, there was a statue erected in Ottawa, Illinois – the former site of the Luminous Process factory – depicting one radium girl as a tribute to them all. In her left hand, she holds a paint brush (“lip, dip, paint”); in her right hand, a tulip. Even though they struggled, they prevailed. Even though they couldn’t help themselves, they were able to pave the way to workplace safety for future generations, which is very powerful.
You go, girls.