It is pretty interesting to think about how much of history gets lost to time, until someone comes along and digs it up again. Have you ever thought about how they get your watch hands and numbers to glow in the dark? Well, once upon a time, it was radium that gave them that glow, and that luminescent paint was applied by women.
The problem was, radium, and the paint that was manufactured from it, is radioactive. Exposure to very much of it will kill you. Of course, the men who ran the watch dial factories didn’t tell the women that; instead they taught them that the best method of applying the paint was to lick the brushes to get a fine point.
The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of the female dial painters, who got sick and died as a result of their work. And the women who stood up for their rights and changed history. These women, some as young as 14, were excited by the high wages they earned, and never believed that the companies they worked for were knowingly exposing them to a poisonous substance. It wasn’t until after the women started falling ill, with numerous diseases caused by the radium, that they finally began to make sense of what was happening.
The Radium Girls offers an excellent account of the period in U.S. history when thousands of young women worked as “dial painters.” It tells the stories of these women, their hopes and dreams and families, their reasons for coming to work in the factories, and what happened to them there. The book explains in frank and often gory detail the effects that radium has on the human body, and how it slowly poisoned and often killed these young women.
It also details the women who fought back, bringing suit against the companies whose executives showed such a callous disregard for their health and lives. Even after there was irrefutable evidence of the effect that the luminescent paint was having on the workers.
This book was very well researched and laid out. Moore captivates the readers with her details on the lives of each of the women who worked at, and became sick at, the factories. It is quite emotional, as I’m sure you can guess, many of these women died as a result of the exposure.
Moore also writes extensively about the lawsuits and worker’s compensation claims brought by the women, relying on court testimony and media coverage of the events. She details the changes to workers compensation laws that were passed as a result of the illnesses and deaths among the dial painters.
I like that these women’s stories are finally being told. They didn’t set out to change the world, but with their suffering, they did. Thanks to Moore, perhaps a new generation of worker’s will understand their sacrifice.
It isn’t for the faint of heart, but The Radium Girls is an excellent read!