If you aren’t familiar with this story (which I wasn’t), the Radium Girls were the dozens of young women who suffered from radium poisoning after working in two factories in New Jersey that used produced watches for WWI soldiers with glowing numbers. The numbers glowed in the dark because of radium in the paint, and these womens’ work was hand painting the numbers on the watch faces — dipping paintbrushes between their lips to keep the end pointy.
There have been other books, plays, and films made about these womens’ tragic story, but author Kate Moore was moved to write this new non-fiction work after she found that the existing works focused on the court cases and workers’ rights laws enacted because of these womens’ plight, but their personal stories had not been shared. With this angle in mind, Moore spent time looking at the Radium Girls’s correspondence, diary entries and court testimony, visiting their workplaces and homes, and speaking with their descendants and relatives.
Moore spends time describing who each of the victims were — their appearance, how they were remembered — making it a gut-punch each time they inevitably fall ill. Descriptions of the effects of this poisoning, mostly focused in the areas around the mouth, are affecting but necessary to truly understand both the agony these women went through, as well as the heartlessness of the business owners who refused to accept any blame or pay recompense to the women they actively killed.
The time that the book is set, towards the end of World War I, into the 1920s and 1930s, and the portrayal of working class women, offer a slice of life into an important part of American history. Jobs working at the watch factories were seen as a step up from other factory work, lending a sheen upon the women as more sophisticated and more glamourous than other factory workers — and casting a literal sheen over them, as Moore describes how some painted their teeth and nails with radium paint as cosmetic treatments.
As Moore intended, this is an eminently readable work of narrative non-fiction, foregrounding the women themselves in their own story. The women’s sisterhood and devotion to one another, how they band together in the face of their shared illness to continue to fight for justice even as women are dying off, is utterly inspiring. This is a mixture of medical history, social history, legal history, workers’ history and, above all, women’s history.
Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women is available as a book, eBook, or (as I read it) an audiobook. Definitely recommended!
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter