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Archive: Other Books > The Radium Girls by Kate Moore - 5 Stars and a <3

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message 1: by Regina Lindsey (new)

Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments The Radium Girls The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore by Kate Moore


A couple of years ago I saw a play entitled, Their Shining Lives. It was my introduction to this subject and I was determined to read a book on the subject. But, I couldn’t find one. So, when Netgalley offered an advanced copy of this book in return for a review I jumped at the opportunity, and it is exactly the work for which I hungered. It is set for publication this March.

In 1913, luminous paint was invented by Sabon von Sochocky of The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange, NJ. This paint created an industry used for watches with faces that glowed in the dark. When WWI broke out the paint was used for dial panels placed in military equipment. Plants across the United States hired thousands of young women, sometimes as young as thirteen years old, who often recruited sisters, to handle the fine details of painting numbers on the watches and dials. The girls were paid by the watch completed not by the hour. So, efficiency was of the essence for both the company and earning potential. They were good at it, sometimes pumping out 4,300 products a day. Many of the girls were of the top 5% earners of the era. In order to perform the tasks quickly and with perfection they were taught a technique – lip, dip, paint. Day after day for years the girls would use their mouths to bring the brush hairs to a fine tip, dip it into the paint, and paint the watch and dial faces. The paint contained radium, the substance that made it luminous.

Of the thousands of women who were employed in this manner this book follows thirty-four women who worked in two plants: the United States Radium Corporation in Ottawa, IL and The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange, NJ.

In the Prologue Moore claims she wants to do justice to the lives of these women. Although the number of figures she introduces to the reader is large and can take a bit to keep straight, she admirably follows through on her intentions. When these young women start working for these companies they are gregarious and full of hope for their futures. Not only did they embrace the economic opportunity presented them, but they fell in love with magical nature of the paint, often using it cosmetically to paint their eyebrows and lips before going out on the town. In their naivety they believed the company propaganda that the paint was safe and the popular assumption that radium is actually good for you. As one executive told them, “it will make your cheeks rosy.” However, one by one, they each began to fall ill. But, it was difficult to pinpoint the cause initially because the presentation of symptoms and when they began varied. Some became ill while still working at the company. Some didn’t become ill until years after. Fortunately, due to the monotonous nature of the work, the girls formed deep bonds over the years and it didn’t take long for them to collectively connect the dots. They banned together and fought.

But, it wasn’t an easy fight and the number of people that betrayed them is nothing short of disgusting. They were shunned by their community for going against a company that provided good jobs even during the Great Depression. They were betrayed by the company, attorneys and doctors who at first appeared to be heroes but in the end sold the girls out, and the government. But a few real heroes did emerge. Of special note are Katherine Wiley of Consumer League, Walter Lippmann, writer for The World, and Leonard Grossman, who spent thirteen years pursuing the cases through eight courts all the way up to the Supreme Court, absorbing all the cost himself. He successfully litigated the first case in US history in which an employer was made responsible for the health of its employees. Their fight was worth it. For the fight has had far-reaching consequences. Thanks to these girls a test was devised to identify radium in the body of a living patient, they affected legislation, impacted safety regulations at The Manhattan Project, and led to the creation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Moore’s writing is engaging. She does justice to the strength and tenacity it took for these young women to fight against all odds and takes the reader through every excruciating detail of the decline and death of the women in a way that makes you feel the loss as deeply as the men who loved some of them. There’s a heart wrenching court scene that had me sobbing right with the husband. But, she’s not only good with the emotional aspects of the book. She adeptly describes how radium works in the body in a way that is utterly fascinating and accessible to the lay person.

I simply cannot recommend this book enough. I’m sure it will be a favorite of this and may be an all-time favorite.

message 2: by Nicole R (new)

Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7601 comments Well, you sold me on this one! On to the TBR is goes. I have really been enjoying nonfiction about strong -- and overlooked -- women lately.

message 3: by Karin (new)

Karin | 6806 comments This is on my tbr. I am not reading most of your review just in case something not seen as a spoiler by most is a spoiler for me :)

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