The Radium Girls
By Kate Moore
One of The Reading Agency Books of the Year 2018
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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Drawing on previously unpublished diaries, letters and interviews, The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative of an unforgettable true story.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.
Most of us were gripped by the book, finding the account of the degeneration of the women’s health, their struggle to have it acknowledged and their long fight through the courts for recompense to be fascinating but horrifying.
It is written in a journalistic style which at times is a bit repetitious but could also seem like a drama documentary. We felt it flowed well and held our interest but one member said she found the details too harrowing and wouldn’t finish it.
We felt it was a book which needed to be written although at times it seemed to ramble and to “romanticise” the women constantly referring to their beauty, style and sweet nature.
We were all horrified by the attitude and actions of the employers and the details of the American healthcare system reinforced to us how much we benefit from the NHS. The legal system also seemed to be able to be manipulated by the employers as they tried to wriggle out of the court findings and their responsibilities.
We felt that it could benefit from some tighter editing to remove some of the repetition and to bring more focus to the first half of the book. We were shocked by the final section telling of a company in the 1970s which was repeating all the actions of the companies at fault in book.
We felt 3* was an appropriate rating.
An amazing story that deserves a wide audience. 'The Radium Girls' are literally a shining example of how determination and friendship can rise above adversity and corruption. The twists and turns of the struggles faced by the main characters are both gripping and heart-tugging.
The book is well-researched and contains information gleaned from diaries, newspapers and family history which brings to life the conditions experienced by many people at the turn of the 20th century, especially throughout the First World War and its aftermath. Corruption, corporate greed and faith are strongly featured throughout.
The essence of the story is quite shocking. The Radium Girls were taught to 'lip, dip and paint' clock dials and were paid piecemeal which encouraged the girls to maximise the number of times they repeated the deadly process.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, directors of the United States Radium Corporation, took out advertisements to persuade people that radium was life-enhancing and health-giving. In the meantime, many of the workers experienced deteriorating health and had to drag themselves to work. Their ailments were attributed to many different causes but, for a long period of time, none of these were openly diagnosed as being associated with their employment.
Finally, the fact that the girls steadfastly fought corruption and corporate malpractice to curtail the number of lives being sacrificed for the sake of commercial gain makes the epilogue even more unpalatable.
All through the book, the power of money was demonstrated but the girls steadfastly fought to defy the odds. Throughout, I was desperately rooting for the Radium Girls. I was fascinated by their journey combined with their social context and would definitely recommend their story to others.
The Radium Girls is an utterly shocking, but absorbing read. The book is painstakingly researched, (which can't have been easy), so we get to know the girls and young women who so tragically and needlessly died from radium poisoning. I found the photos compelling as they helped me to feel for the characters in the appallingly prolonged saga before justice was finally done.
This is a hard and long book to read, taking one through a wide range of emotions. Huge sympathy and awe for the women's bravery and sadness for their families; immense anger and frustration towards the corporations, and those dentists and doctors who colluded with them; relief that there were a few strong people who fought on their behalf.
It would be good if everyone read this book as it serves as a warning of the enduring power of money and the lengths to which greedy companies will go, even today.
This book should be required reading in schools. How was it that an industrial process maimed and killed scores of women, many under 30, and condemned them to an agonising ‘living death’, yet their employers denied, and would continue to deny, any liability whatsoever for years and years?
This book pulls no punches. The girls had a mantra - ‘lip, dip, paint’. It should have been ‘lip, dip, die’. Before the first world war, young women were employed to paint dials for watches and clocks and for military use. They were quick, nimble fingered and very well paid and the company that employed them strenuously denied that there was any danger in the luminous concoction that they ingested as they skilfully completed their orders.
It was a carefree life. They had good money in their pockets, could afford to dress well and party hard. They recruited friends and sisters to join them. Life was good. When they walked home in the dusk they glowed which gave them an ethereal quality. Some were encouraged to take powder home with them to experiment. They used it as make up and mixed it to paint on their nails.
But the good years were not to last as their health deteriorated and gradually their diverse symptoms were linked to their employment. This book traces the struggle to lay the blame on radium used in the paint and the court testimony given by these young women is agonising. They enabled the employee protection laws in the USA to be drawn up for the benefit of succeeding generations. They gave their lives.