by Fran Withrow
In the early 1900s, radium was seen as a “wonder element.” Touted as a healthful cure-all, it was a go-to remedy for colds and cancer. Manufacturers hinted that it would make women more beautiful. One could drink it! And it glittered. What a versatile substance.
“Liquid sunshine” would also glow in the dark, so it was used to illuminate dials for clocks. There was a big demand from 1917 on for “dial-painters,” women who were taught to lip-point their brushes so they could paint those tiny numbers. They put the brush to their lips, then into the radium, then painted the dials. Lip, dip, paint. These women swallowed radium every day, and the physical effects didn’t take long to appear. It took a while for doctors to figure out what was going on, and when they did, these victims of radium poisoning asked for financial help from their employers. They were quickly turned down. Manufacturers were not worried. What could a few young women do to them?
As it turns out, a few young women can do a lot.
The effects of radium exposure can be brutal. Some workers showed symptoms quickly: their teeth fell out, their jawbones disintegrated, they became anemic and died. Others survived longer, but developed huge sarcomas and fragile bones that fractured far too easily. They suffered constant, debilitating, intense pain.
Kate Moore’s well-written account of these radium girls—their health struggles as well as their fight for compensation—is an account of immense courage. Once these workers realized their employers would not support them, they fought back. Some of them were desperately sick at the time, and many of them had little in the way of education. But that didn’t stop them.
The women described here were no wimps.
Nor were they women of means. Most were working-class girls, some as young as fourteen. Moore has done an incredible amount of research to tease out the stories of individual women: who they were, how radium affected them, and how their struggle for justice impacted environmental safety in the workplace.
With the help of a few courageous attorneys, two groups of women in two different cities (Ottawa, Illinois and Newark, New Jersey) fought and finally won compensation. Their court cases led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which works across the country to ensure worker safety.
The women died hemorrhaging from their jaws. They left small children behind. They amputated cancerous limbs. But they did not back down. If that isn’t bravery, I don’t know what is.
As you read this gripping story, you may, like me, repeatedly refer to the grainy photographs of Katherine, Grace, and Edna. You may study Mollie’s misshapen jawbone, and stare at Catherine lying on her couch, too weak to rise but still determined to fight.
You may think, as I do, that courage in the face of adversity sometimes defies comprehension. These tough and determined women changed not just their own lives, but the lives of workers everywhere.
It’s about time their story was told.
“The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women”
by The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women