Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 29, 2016

The incredible true story of the young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium and their brave struggle for justice... As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights. A rich, historical narrative written in a sparkling voice, The Radium Girls is the first book that fully explores the strength of extraordinary women in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the astonishing legacy they left behind. 

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An unnamed dial painter.
I picked up Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls on a whim. I was familiar with the basics, but I’d never studied the material in depth and was curious to learn more about luminescent dial painters whose lives were forfeit to the United States Radium Corporation.

Most biographic accounts capture the facts, but Moore’s illustrates more than that. She captures the spirit of these women, from their initial optimism and humor to the aches and pains that plagued their bodies both during and after their employment. Moore details their daily duties and the circumstances that came to define their lives, but the portraits she created of Mollie Maggia, Peg Looney, Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice are striking and poignant. Moore treats these woman as individuals rather than a case study and I think the approach sets her work apart.

Moore took great care to account for the legal action and Corporate cover-ups that prevented the girls from getting immediate help and/or proper diagnosis. The medical reports are fascinating and I was amazed at how long it took the powers that be to understand and admit that radium was in fact dangerous. Radium businesses were also slow to warn their workers about the dangers of radium and I was impressed at how the girls’ and their fortitude actually altered the landscape of American business and inspired workplace safety regulation and the creation of OSHA. The final chapters of the text drive the realities of radium and its impact home and I love how Moore used those final pages to make the material startlingly relevant to modern readers.

The Radium Girls is mesmerizing social history of the worker’s rights in America. It chronicles a lesser known chapter, but one I’d highly recommend to any student of history.

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The original radium girls were indeed Cassandra- like in their powers; and just like Cassandra, their prophecies were not always listened to. 
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