Originally posted on the Happy Homo Book Club
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.
Enter 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.