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.
Everyone I speak to about this book has no idea who the Radium Girls are and before this neither did I.
Just a forewarning I don’t really count any of this review to be spoilery as it is a non fiction but if you want to go in knowing no or minimal information I’d skip this one for now.
Maybe it was mentioned in a class and I wasn’t paying attention? Maybe it wasn’t mentioned because it’s American history not Australian? Whatever the reason I’m saddened that I didn’t know of these ladies before and so happy to see more than 11,000 people at this time has read this book and learnt just as much as I did.
The Radium Girls are workers who were taken advantage of and mistreated. Mistreated doesn’t really encompass all the things they went through, what this company did to them and the towns they were supposedly “bringing work to” “saving the economy” “aiding the war” all at the expense of their own people’s health is disgusting.
Woman from the ages of 14-20+ worked in the factory painting clocks that glow in the dark and aid soldiers in the trenches. They were told Radium is not only completely safe to handle but made you HEALTHIER even sold radium infused water to the rich. The girls were made to feel privileged to work there and received a decent income they could support their family with, being paid by how many dials they complete rather than hourly/salary. Demonstrations like the supervisor eating a spoonful of radium and nothing happening to her to show the girls how great the stuff was, it’s not hard to understand why these ladies believed the lies they were fed.
In the beginning I can give the company deniability for saying it was safe I mean maybe they thought it was and it was a genuine lack of knowledge, BUT as we learn more it’s impossible not to put blame on the owners for their lack of care.
Radium was used in other countries without killing woman, other armies made radium watches that shined in the dark, they took precautions so their workers were not in direct contact, so they were not SWALLOWING RADIATION. The american companies didn’t care. When the US knew that other countries were using special tools as to not INGEST THE SHIT they bought the tools but made no effort to stop the woman from using paint brushes. The american women were instructed to put radium covered brush tips into their mouths to retip the brush making it thin enough to paint tiny watch faces precisely and faster than using other tools.
This book highlighted how the companies could control just about everything, helping to put in laws that if the illness wasn’t reported within 6 month then they couldn’t get compensation, paying off Doctors, hijacking autopsies and spreading rumors that woman have died of a sexual disease so the family would be too embarrassed to inquire deeper. ALL TO KEEP THE WOMAN MAKING CLOCK FACES FASTER. Their bottom line is worth more than 100’s of woman’s lives.
The cherry on top? The men handling the radium down stairs? ALL wearing aprons, not ingesting, being protected, being given HOLIDAYS so they’re not handling radium for long periods of time. The Woman? Being paid by the tray so the incentive to paint more and earn more money was huge and reassured that it was safe even after their work mates were dying, limping, having teeth fall out of their mouths and their jaw bones disintegrating.
The horrible effects of Radium, the descriptions of pain, the pain and more pain these ladies went through, how their family suffered, how the company didn’t give a shit. It’s heartbreaking and unbelievable.
“The cynical would say there was only one reason a high-profile specialist finally took up the cause. On June 7, 1925, the first male employee of the United States Radium Corporation died.”
My partner listened to this with me and was just in disbelief next to me that this was allowed to happen… maybe if the men weren’t protected it wouldn’t have been as bad, oops we thought it was okay… but to just be the Woman… what the fuck.
The audio book read by the Author was fantastic, the story is horrendous in its context but fantastic in its writing, knowledge and sharing these woman’s stories. I highly recommend it for your next non-fiction read.
This book will stick with you, haunt you, and make you talk about these woman to everyone you know.
Have you read this? Is it on your TBR?
I really need people to yell about this with me because I’m so shocked that these woman’s stories aren’t widely known and taught.