Cover Image: The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls

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Member Reviews

This was a very interesting and emotionally engaging book.  I had some vague knowledge of the "radium girls" before reading the book, but had no idea of the impact that their pursuit of justice had on the country-- expanding and improving compensation for occupational diseases, contributing to the creation of OSHA, leading to stringent safety precautions for the workers on the Manhattan Project, establishing the dangers of radiation exposure on the human body, etc.  The author does a great job of bringing the dial painters to life, discussing their appearances, interests, aspirations, families, reasons for working as a dial painter, friendships, and interactions with each other at work.  She goes into detail regarding their medical ailments, the medical and dental visits, the uncertainty of the doctors and dentists about what was causing the symptoms, the research that suggested a possible link to radium, the accidental discoveries that provided insight (such as bones left on x-ray film leaving a white glow on the paper), and the opposition to the idea that radium, which was considered a wonder substance, could be poisonous.  The author describes in great detail the legal efforts to obtain justice and compensation for the women, as well as the efforts by the companies to hide knowledge of the harms of radiation (including company medical tests that supported the claims of the women).  My only criticism, and it is a minor one, is that while the author uses dramatic descriptions to evoke an emotional response from the reader, at times the author seems to be overly dramatic when discussing certain events or the conditions of particular women.  Overall, a book well worth reading.
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This book made me so unbelievably angry. It tells the true story of the women who worked as radium-dial painters during World War I, and all of the health issues they suffered because of their constant exposure to radium. The fact that the company was so determined to avoid compensating these women as they died agonizing deaths was infuriating. Moore does a great job of bringing these women's voices back to life while holding the radium-dial factories accountable for their actions.
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Radium Girls is a must read. It is part of the American history and this women need to be remembered.
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Ever heard of Catherine Donohue, Grace Fryer or Katherine Schaub? No? And yet these women have likely saved you from enduring the same bone-splintering fate from radium poisoning. Kate Moore's "Radium Girls" gives us a very personal and up-front account of the labouring women of the early 20th century whose bodies literally crumbled in front of their loved ones, while the denial of radium poisoning by greedy businessmen continued to cost more women's lives. Definitely a must-read for everyone but of particular interest to anyone interested in Feminist and Marxist histories.
Most of us have come across the name radium at one point or another, whether it be in a school science lesson or through one of the many pop culture references to it. Before reading this book the only things I knew about radium were from the Fallout game franchise, in which you live in a world destroyed by nuclear fallout and try to survive attacks from “horribly irradiated” creatures such as feral ghouls. However, like many others, I knew almost nothing of the real world ‘Radium Fever’ that swept across the world during the early 20th century; a time which saw radium used in almost all everyday items such as a chocolate, water, toothpaste, cosmetics, and in clocks and watches.

dial-paintersEnter Kate Moore‘s “Radium Girls”, a richly woven historical account of America’s ‘shining women’ who worked in the dial-painting factories during the radium boom the early 20th century. Thought of as the luckiest girls on earth for getting to work with the ‘health miracle‘, hundreds of girls sat down to work every day at the factories where they diligently painted clock and watch faces in the very way in which they were shown to. Lip, Dip, Paint. Who would have thought that such a short and simple phrase could cast such a chill down one’s spine?

As a self-proclaimed “story-teller and non-academic”, Moore takes us on an illuminating historical journey into the horrifying consequences of such a simple act of putting a paintbrush to one’s lips and the diabolical cover-ups of their bone-cracking suffering by the very radium corporations that they ended up giving their lives to. As a student of History, I have read many dry historical accounts and have found that these often focus more on historical events than the lives of the very people who were involved in the making of those events. Frustrated with such an approach to a sensitive, emotive and hard-hitting injustice, Moore used her strengths as a storyteller to really focus on the experiences of the girl’s themselves. Following a number of women from the United States Radium Corporation and Radium Dial Corporation factories, we don’t just get to know these women but come to develop a surprising closeness with them as we watch them, literally, begin to disintegrate before the very eyes of their loved ones.

Moore’s powerful descriptions of these women, including what they looked like, what they wore, how they behaved, their romances, aspirations and families, helps to ground the reality of what happened to them, which is something entirely missing from abstract historical accounts. We don’t just hear about the terrifying science behind radium, the economic boom and the Great Depression of the 20’s, the abstract suffering and slow decay of radium poisoning, but we see it, we feel it. I never thought that I would see a shining woman, lit up like a beautiful firefly in the night sky as she danced down the street in her elegant new dress and her glamorous soft curled bob on her way to meet her hunky new romance. I also never thought that I would see the horror of women pulling chunks of their jawbone out of her own mouth, as blackened lumps begin to appear and their bodies become twisted into excruciating angles as they slowly endure the radium eating through their bones.

Whilst it can at times be hard to sit through, there were definitely a few times I felt sick or cried as these young women that I had come to know began to crumble away, the Radium Girls is a must read. I have always felt so passionately about history which uncovers the lives of people whom others wish to see buried in the decay of the past, and this is exactly what the Radium Girls is about. Helping to bring these women further justice after the horrors that they were put through by greedy businessmen and amplifying a legacy which is not told often enough. Your safety in the workplace from occupational poisons and the fact that we haven’t all died a similarly painful death from radium in nuclear fallout is largely thanks to these women. Yet, I can bet that you have never heard the names of Katherine Schaub, Grace Fryer or Catherine Donohue, to name but a few.

For the most part, I only have incredibly good words to say about Moore’s critically important book but, as with any book, there were a few niggly bits that meant that I gave this 4 1/2 stars rather than 5. I found the jumping between the two different factories in Ottawa and New Jersey quite confusing, especially given how many different people we hear about during such a short space of time. However, I did find that this was slightly offset by Moore primarily focusing on particular girls throughout the book. Another tiny niggle I had was that although I majoritively enjoyed the story-telling aspect of Moore’s work, there are times when her writing can become a little bit too purple prose which, at times, I found a little bit distracting. And lastly, I did find Radium Girls a little bit of a slow read. It took me almost exactly a month to read it, and I struggled a little bit with the length of the first section of the book which focused on the “setting up” of the story. Yet, once again this didn’t bother me too much, particularly as I felt that the slowness of the book ended up cleverly lending itself as a mimicry of the women’s very long fight for justice and I would rather Moore used more words to do these women’s lives justice than rush through.

Lastly, I would just like to say a huge thank you to Sourcebook for allowing me to read Radium Girls through Netgalley and, of course, to Kate Moore for capturing the Radium Girls in such a powerful narrative. As I read my copy through Netgalley I sadly didn’t get to appreciate the wonderful photographs included in the hard-copy of the book, so can’t wait to get my own copy of this!
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Fantastic, very readable non-fiction. This story was heartbreaking and empowering. A group of women who suffered and then fought to change the law knowing full well they would never benefit financially from it themselves. An important piece of history.
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First, this review has been a long time coming. I read The Radium Girls months ago before it was published and have been meaning to write a review ever since. Between graduating, traveling, and life in general I just never got to sit down and write what this book deserves. Per usual, I'm now a little late to The Radium Girls party but I hope to have a productive discussion with those who have read it and encourage those who haven't to do so.

But first, a little history

Before we can really dive into The Radium Girls it is important to understand both what Moore is talking about and who Moore is talking about.

The term "Radium Girls" refers to female factory workers employed at three different sites during the early 1920s to manufacture watch faces that were luminous. These women succumbed to radium poisoning due to the practices in which they were trained by the companies for which they worked. They were taught to "lip-point" which means that they would dip their brushes in radium based paint, use their mouths to "point" the brush, and then paint numbers on a watch face. To exacerbate their radium-exposure even more, the women were paid by the watch face meaning that they would try to complete as many in a day as possible. This was standard practice and the company encouraged it by insisting radium was harmless.

Of course, with our modern understanding of radioactivity we know that these women were working in hellish conditions even if they seemed acceptable to the naked eye. Eventually, these woman began deteriorate physically quite rapidly. Radium poisoning wracked their bodies in unthinkable ways and it took doctors quite some time to figure out what was even happening to them. Armed with a diagnosis, the women turned to their former employers for justification. Unfortunately, the law let these women down in way that it should not have done. Because of this, the Radium Girls were and still are important figures in the labor rights movement. Their lawsuits and struggles opened the door for employees to hold their employers legally accountable for unsuitable working conditions.

An Interesting Perspective

Kate Moore offers an interesting perspective as she tells the story of the Radium Girls. First and most obviously, she is a woman. This gives her the ability to be uniquely sympathetic to their struggles and to paint a compelling emotional narrative from start to finish. It is refreshing to read the story of women through the eyes and perspective of a woman.

Second, she is British. Should the nationality of an author affect their written work? I don't know if it should, but it often does. Americans and Brits have an incredibly different view of the world which affects the way an author chooses to narrate their work. Here, Moore's calm British tone lends beautifully to the story of The Radium Girls. I feel that without her calm narration the book could have easily slipped into histrionics. This plight of the Radium Girls is most definitely worth getting upset over but doing so would not have benefited the goal of the The Radium Girls

Third and finally, Moore is one of the most prepared authors I have ever read. The reader is acutely aware of just how much she knows about her subject. First encountering the Radium Girls while directing a play based on their lives, she was relentless in the pursuit of information about the girls, their doctors, their lawyers, and the companies they worked for. One almost gets the impression that Moore was friends with some of the Radium Girls which lends itself to the personal narrative of the book.

There's something here for everyone

Now that we understand the both the historic background and the background of the author, we can not productively discuss the work itself.

In The Radium Girls Moore does a fantastic job of dispelling what I like to call the "group mentality". Instead of discussing the Radium Girls as a large, impersonal group, Moore discusses individually. She takes the time to let the readers get to know the woman before they succumb to radium-induced illnesses and afterwards. We see their personal struggles as they get married, have children, or continue work. We read, through their correspondence and journals, of their shock, dismay, and anger at the companies who were responsible for their situation. Over and over again, Moore makes sure to point out the fact that The Radium Girl were people with names, faces, dreams, desires, and sorrow. This is refreshing coming from a book of this genre as it would be all too easy to lump the cast of characters into a mass mold. Doing so would have made authorship easier on Moore, but she obviously prefers accuracy over ease.

Central to the narrative of The Radium Girls are the doctors, lawyers, and company men involved in both perpetuating the wrong doing and ending it. Because of this, Moore gives both detailed medical and legal accounts of the proceedings that led up to a vicious legal battle. I was enthralled and horrified as I read of the physical decay and suffering these women underwent. I loved the descriptions of the medical proceedings and hung to every word as Moore detailed the doctor's struggle to grasp what was really happening. I drank it up.

But then came the legal proceedings. The second half of The Radium Girls focuses on the legal battle between the women and the company who wronged them. With just as much detail, Moore expertly documents the legal proceedings and how the law failed the Radium Girls. I really can't complain about it because it is so well-done, but reading about the legal proceedings was just incredibly boring to me. In fact, I almost put The Radium Girls down once I hit the bulk of the "lawyer-y" part. That may be just because I have a very STEM oriented mind. So I wouldn't let this issue I had worry you too much. Be warned, The Radium Girls is not a beach read. It is a lengthy historical work told in flawless detail. It is difficult to read and dry in some parts, but it is overall enjoyable.

Bottom Line

Kate Moore's The Radium Girls is a shining example of non-fiction at its best. Yes, it is lengthy and detailed but that doesn't take away from the readers' enjoyment. The Radium Girls is an incredibly important work telling a story that should not be forgotten.
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An excellent book - as a science teacher I was familiar with the science of radium and the phenomenon of radium poisoning, but this book brought the dry science to life. Although the phrase 'brought to life' is ironic, since it would be more accurate to say that the book made more real the many terrible sufferings and painful deaths endured by the young girls who painted the luminous dials of watches and gauges in the early twentieth century. The truly vile manoeuvrings of the factory owners to avoid liability over the predictable damage is as evil as anything described in the fiction of John Grisham. A very good read that - hopefully - shows how far we have come in protecting workers from occupational illness.
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From the Radium Girls' torment from the radiation poisoning that devoured them from the inside-out, the unbelievable array of barriers thrown in their way by their employers in the quest that many of the girls made for justice and simple recognition, to the effects that have rippled out to this day in so many ways, and everything in between, this is an incredible story whose subjects Moore does immense justice to in a detailed narrative that
very successfully shocks and disgusts beyond words yet will also leave readers inspired and awed by the time they reach the final page.
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Another disturbing chapter of our history revealed.
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Not since The Lilac Girls has a book made such a distinct impression on me.  I just sent an e-mail to over 20 women urging them to read this book.  I so appreciate the opportunity to read quality books like this and recommend them to others.  

This book uncovers an important part of American social and labor history that until now has been kept in the shadows.  I applaud the author, who did a fabulous job bringing these women to life from their graves to tell their story.. I highly recommend this book.
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I must start off by saying that this is not the type of book that I usually read. I saw a video on Facebook about these 'Radium Girls' and decided that I would definitely have to read this book. 

I cannot believe that I did not know about this before. This was such a sad book. These girls (and some men) sacrificed so much so that others could be safe. It was really a heart-wrenching read. Before their symptoms started, they were so happy and carefree. This book details their struggles with their health and their fight for justice. 

They won in the end but sadly, it was too late for many of them. 

This is an absolute must read. I highly recommend this book. 

Thank you to Netgalley and Sourcebook for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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A truly astounding tale but it's not for the faint of heart.  The real-life struggles of these women will break your heart.  A very important story for not only Americans but people worldwide.  These women stood up for their rights and won valuable protections against industrial abuse of workers.  Their stories are truly horrifying and disturbing. The topic which lends itself to discussion so this would be an excellent choice for a book club.
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I received this book in exchange for an honest review on NetGalley.

Despite how grateful I am to have received this book, I sadly had to abandon it about 25% of the way through. I was dragging myself through it and could not get myself interested enough to read more than a few pages at a time. In the interest of all the other books in the world, I decided to abandon ship. 

The premise of the book interested me greatly, and I wish it had been written in a more exciting style, rather than being bogged down by details. I could this becoming a movie or miniseries - as the women involved seem truly tremendous and worthy of portrayal. There are a lot of interesting characters at play - not only these women, but the doctors who treated them, government/public officials and researchers who investigated the matter, and of course, the businessmen determined to stop the association of radium with these women's horrific ailments.

As an infrequent nonfiction reader, you may take my assessment of the riveting nature of the book with a grain of salt. If nonfiction is your style, I would try this on for size.
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WOW. I have  struggled writing this review, forming words that do the book justice. It is Heartbreaking, yet powerful. The cruel reality showing the evil side of capitalism, illustrating the worst form of corporate greed there is. When innocent lives are destroyed and scientific evidence is pushed under the rug and denied, just for profit. Through the girls stories, I was reminded to always question everything,  especially when it comes to your health. 

The book follows the lives of Radium factory workers, who painted radium watch dials in the early 1920s with the beautiful and new self-luminous paint. They were told that the paint was harmless, and told to "point" their  brushes daily with their tongues, ingesting it. The girls started becoming sick, but the company kept denying that Radium was to blame, even destroying evidence.

I was engrossed in each girl's story. I was heartbroken, seeing them naively taken advantage of. I cried with them, got angry with them, and I  became their ally, emotionally invested in their battle against the company that ruined their lives. I never heard of  "The Radium Girls" before I started reading this book, and now I will never forget them
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I didn't put this down. I've bought three copies to gvie away two. This is every bit as good as Hidden Figures and Rise of the Rocket Girls.
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I had to keep reminding myself that Moore had not written a piece of fiction and that indeed the events in the book took place and the people mentioned lived through them. History is largely dependent on those who get to tell it and for those who don't... there is no history for them that they can own. Moore's writing is beautiful hence the confusion of fiction or non-fiction. I believe that had the Radium Girls lived they would have loved her writing of their lives. This is an important book and has lessons for human kind of epic proportions. Climate change deniers should read this book! It causes the reader to give pause and internalise the world they live in and their own lives. I highly recommend this book and will ensure I get as many people to read it as possible - it is that important and timeless. Every library should have one; personal and public. Thank you NetGalley, Kate Moore and Sourcebooks for the access and opportunity to discover this book and the important history it holds. Special thanks to Moore for paying tribute to the Radium Girls (I feel like the name would have been bitter-sweet for them).
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