Book to Read: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

Written by Kate Moore and released in 2016 (U.S. release in 2017), The Radium Girls tells the story of women known as Radium Girls—female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint. These women were told that the paint was harmless, subsequently ingesting deadly amounts of radium on the job; they were told to “point” their brushes on their lips in order to create a finer brush tip. The luminescent quality of the paint was so beautiful the women painted their fingernails, face, and teeth.

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After working in the factories, these women began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw—a condition now known as radium jaw. Though the workers continued to fall ill, the U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium; doctors, dentists, and research complied with requests from the companies to not release their studies and data detailing the harmful nature of radium. The women’s saga established important milestones within health physics and the labor rights movement.

 

Moore tells the story from the perspective of women living and working in Illinois and New Jersey. With brutal precision and detail, she spares her reader nothing of the women’s suffering. Through telling this story, Moore points up injustices and discrimination in the work place, eventually weaving the story into thoughtful commentary on the widespread rejection of women’s assertions and claims in both professional and personal life. On the book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Megan Marshall writes: “Moore sheds new light on a dark chapter in American labor history; the radium girls, martyrs to an unholy alliance of commerce and science, live again in her telling.”

 

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