This book makes one uncomfortable from the very start. Moore lists the ways in which American society embraced the use of radium at the turn of the century. They put it on and in practically everything. It glowed in the dark, after all! It was miraculous! Moore’s blithe list is just so jarring to a 21st-century reader who is aware of radioactivity and the dangers of radium. Yet it’s an effective way to establish the setting for The Radium Girls: although plenty of people in positions of power at these companies were aware that radium could be dangerous, they weren’t eager to advertise this fact to the public or to the girls they hired.
I received this from Sourcebooks via NetGalley in exchange for a review.
It quickly becomes apparent that this is not an easy story to tell, either from an emotional perspective or a narrative one. I’ll talk about the emotional angle in a bit, but first I want to examine the way Moore approaches the whole saga. There are so many people involved, so many names, that it’s easy to conflate people. Moore basically keeps everything in chronological order, marching forward from World War I through the Depression, the Second World War, and then into the 1940s and beyond. To do this, however, she has to jump among several different towns and factories, introducing women and then dropping them until they re-enter the story years, if not decades later. I’d often find myself reading over a name a few times and wondering, “Is she new? Or did we meet her before?” Similarly, I needed to keep reminding myself that we weren’t dealing with a single, monolithic corporation. There was the United States Radium Corporation, and then Radium Dial, and even, finally, Luminous Processes—they were slightly different beasts, with slightly different stories and strategies and tragedies.
In other words, the story here is a complicated one. Moore does her best to tell it as simply and clearly as possible. Some of the medical and scientific details are very complex, and Moore does a great job to explain them without jargon. While a basic understanding of what elements and isotopes are and why ionizing radiation is so bad for human tissue would be helpful here, you will also learn a lot from this book. For instance, I didn’t make the connection between radium building up in the bones like calcium (yay periodicity of elements!) until Moore pointed it out.
So at first, while Moore sets the stage and introduces us to the players of this drama, The Radium Girls can feel slightly dense and occasionally opaque from the thick dust of details that settles upon the page. But as the story continues and the damning evidence mounts that radium poisoning is at the centre of the girls’ ill health, the emotional payoff of this story is far more intense and provocative than one might first expect.
Indeed, although this is non-fiction and Moore frequently quotes from both primary and secondary sources, with pages upon pages of endnotes and references at the end of the book, The Radium Girls reads more like a novel at times. That’s how much these women, their families, and those scurrilous villains of company managers and lawyers come alive. As Moore describes, with elegance and empathy and pathos, the deterioration of these women’s teeth and jawbones and legs … heartbreaking doesn’t begin describe it.
Moore reminds us that this saga unfolds over decades. This is not a matter of years but a lifetime. While the oldest radium girls were bringing the first suits against USRC and Radium Dial, a younger generation was still dipping their brushes in paint and then pointing them with their lips. The simultaneity of these events boggles the mind in hindsight, and reading it … just knowing that these women are ingesting an insanely dangerous and harmful substance … and that the companies know but don’t care …
… well, I took frequent breaks while reading this. I just couldn’t keep going sometimes. Normally the kinds of non-fiction stories that get me are the ones that focus on a single person, of course, and their struggles. This book has a much vaster cast, yet it still got to me. It still made me cry, several times over, because this story is just so awful and unnecessary and therefore needs to be told.
It’s not just the women’s physical decline, either, the senseless and unnecessary suffering of it all. It’s also the carelessness. The lack of consent. The companies would bring in doctors to examine these women, sometimes in very personal and invasive ways—and wouldn’t share the results. Long after the radium had begun to take its toll on these women’s bodies, the companies would compound that injury. Women’s bodies have long been a battleground they should never be, and Moore highlights that here.
The last act of the book ramps up on the emotions to well past 11, though. As Moore recounts the test case trial by Catherine Donohue, the story takes on all the hues of an epic legal drama deserving of a miniseries or at the very least a movie. Catherine is in so much pain, but she tries so hard to stay strong, to stay alive, long enough to bear witness to what Radium Dial did. And the lengths to which the company tries to appeal the judgments, mostly to delay long enough for Catherine to die before she can receive any compensation, are truly despicable. After seeing my reading pace pick up steadily for the middle of the book, I was back a crawl, looking up every page or so and just staring off and covering my mouth and trying to fathom how human beings can have so little regard and empathy for each other.
The Radium Girls reminds me a lot of Hidden Figures, another history book authored by a woman about a largely untold story about women. Like Hidden Figures, I think this would make a fantastic movie; this story definitely needs to be more widely known. I also love how Moore mentions the contributions of so many other professional women in this book. Dr. Alice Hamilton is a name I could just barely recall from stories about the fight against leaded gasoline. She’s involved in the battle to classify radium poisoning as an occupational health concern/industrial disease—and a quick jaunt to her Wikipedia page informed me of what a stone-cold badass she was over her 101 year on this Earth. In addition to her tireless science work, she was a political activist and professor. And then you have someone like Frances Perkins, then–Secretary of Labour and first woman cabinet member in the United States. Moore juxtaposes these powerful and inspiring women against a society that largely divests women of power or influence, even over their own bodies, as mentioned above.
The epilogue traces the impact of the radium girls over the latter half of the 20th century, including their ongoing contributions to research. Although Moore rightly commends the protections that have since been enshrined in American labour law, she pragmatically points out that those standards are only effective if followed. The radium girls’ suffering is just one example where corporations have outright lied and deceived the public and government officials simply because it might affect their profits. We saw it with leaded gasoline. With tobacco. Polymer giant DuPont was doing it quite recently. The radium girls’ story is essential not because it is a milestone from our past but because it is a mirror of our ongoing reality.
For all of its bright moments and successes in court, unlike Hidden Figures, The Radium Girls is not an upbeat and triumphant story, of course. Nevertheless, it is a testament to the fortitude and courage of the radium girls who pressed forward in legal and medical challenges over the years, as well as the experts who fought alongside them against the corporation who sought to keep everything in the dark.
They should have known better—the dark is where these girls shone brightest.