Published by Sourcebooks on April 18, 2017
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The incredible true story of the women who fought America's Undark danger
The Curies' newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.
Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these "shining girls" are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.
But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women's cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America's early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers' rights that will echo for centuries to come.
Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the "wonder" substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives...
Generally, I don’t read emotionally heavy books, and I don’t know if I would have picked up The Radium Girls if I had known that it would have me in tears on almost every page. That being said, it was an excellent book, one I would definitely recommend.
At the beginning of the 20th century, dozens of healthy, young, working-class women (some as young as 14) were employed in a newly-born business: painting watch, clock, and other instrument dials with a luminescent paint containing radium, both for consumers and the military. At the time, this fluorescent wonder was believed so beneficial for the body, that medications, aesthetic treatments, and even toiletry items had started to employ it. Everyone who came in contact with this miracle of science was amazed by its property to make everything it touched glow, even the skin, teeth and clothes of the girls who worked with it. Painting with radium was a highly desired job, as it offered higher wages than average and it was, in a word, glamorous. Who would consider herself luckier than a girl who could afford fur coats and high heels, and went to parties every weekend glowing like a star. And so the girls, believing that what they were doing was not only safe, but even beneficial, would handle the material every day for several hours, without any protection, and they would even ingest it, as they were advised to use their lips to shape the brush during the painting process. Mind you, at the same time the male lab workers were given lead-lined aprons and ivory forceps for handling tubes of radium.
Then, women started losing teeth, developing aches and pains, and dying. The amazing thing is that these young women fought back. They endured atrocious pains, horrible disfigurements, public criticism and, overall, just plain injustice, but they took their battle to the courts. They sued, not just for the money, although they all needed it for medical bills, but also for the lives of other women, other workers. Finding lawyers to take their cases and doctors who were both honest and knowledgeable was a struggle, but they, and their husband, parents, families, didn’t give up. It amazed me how unwilling the companies were, first to protect the girls, then to admit and kind of responsibility. They outright lied to the women. They knew the paint was dangerous but continued to assure the women that it was fine. Money mattered more.
The Radium Girls was obviously well-researched and Moore does a good job bringing their stories to life. She tells us the ins and outs of the legal proceedings but keeps it compelling. I never felt overwhelmed with details, I think because she keeps the women front and center, their struggles, hopes, worries. It’s a hard book to get through, but once I started reading, I was hooked. These women got labor laws changed, and maybe more importantly, helped scientists understand the effects of radium and radiation poisoning.