The Radium Girls is the one of those chilling true stories that have the power to haunt us in more ways than one. Personally, I never feel terribly certain that I’m safe when it comes to occupational health and safety. I don’t know if it’s growing up around too many stories of people not getting taken care of or that people can be so intent on getting work done that they forget we’re people. This story is definitely about both in a time when women’s health and pain were even more underrated than they are now. Background on the struggle between medical professionals and women’s pain is detailed in Ask Me About My Uterus.
The Radium girls are group of girls who worked to paint dials and clocks and weapons sights in the early part of the 21st century with radium. This is while it was seen as a bit of a miracle drug and way before anyone knew anything radiation. Of course, the people who knew a little something here or there weren’t given much credence and the work had a tendency to overlook the safety measures that the girls were supposed to take. It’s criminal for sure, and sounds crazy, but I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has ever circumvented a safety measure in order to get my job done more efficiently in the era of the OSHA. Sad as it sounds, I’ve known a lot of people who have done such things, and encouraged others to do so, and it’s hard to see the long term effects when you’re young. All these things factor into how these girls ended up in the situation they were in plus the lack of acknowledgement of women’s pain as more than hysteria.
Of course, there’s a lot of worthy nuance in the book and that summary in no way makes up for or really spoils it. There’s a documentary too, but I never watched it. The book itself not only has the extra nuance but quite a bit of detail into who the girls were, how they came to be working in the radium factory, why they wanted to work there, and how their lives progressed afterward. In the afterward, there are a lot of gruesome details about medical conditions that could be triggering for anyone who has dealt with cancer or lack of attention from medical professionals when dealing with cancer. They were brave women and their story is interesting and deserves more notice in history, especially given the outcome.
This is a book for anyone interested in history in general, or herstory specifically, also those researching occupational health and safety. The level of detail and attention that Moore paid to the lives of the women, both while they worked with radium and after, can seem too detailed or slow for some. I appreciated that she took care to tell the whole story without leaving anything out and that she told the women’s story, not the story of the United States Radium Corporation or OSHA. It’s an important distinction for me.