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.
I first heard of the radium girls after reading my usual crime fiction fare with a book set in 1920’s New York. They weren’t a large part of the book, but the covering up of what the radium was doing to them was a key part of the plot. So, when I saw The Radium Girls, a work of non-fiction that told the story of these women, I jumped at the chance to read it.
I am really glad I did because it shone a light on the lives of a group of incredibly brave women, some of whom literally shone thanks to the radium that stuck to their skin and made its way into their bodies and bones. Nowadays, of course, we think how could it happen but, in the 20’s radium was seen as a cure-all and nothing to be afraid of. And when people in authority told people without it things, they tended to believe what they were told.
Radium was used in so many products, including luminous paint – which is what the women used to paint watch dials and instrument panels, pointing the tip of the brush with their tounges and consuming radium each time. It is no wonder they got ill. The fact that it took so long to link their illnesses to radium is perhaps more surprising – but no one considered it for a long time because of the variety of symptoms they suffered through.
Perhaps if the companies the women worked for had been honest about what they knew about the dangers of radium, it might have been clearer sooner, but they weren’t – resulting in the deaths of hundred (thousands possibly) of women. Reading about it is tragic but also left me shocked and angry by the behaviour of their employers. I know it was a long time ago, but it doesn’t make what they did any more understandable or forgivable.