By Julie Kish

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

By Kate Moore

Sourcebooks, 2017

When choosing my reading material, I usually pick captivating fiction novels. However, I kept hearing praises about a provocative non-fiction book by British writer Kate Moore. After reading it, I can confirm the recommendations were absolutely warranted.

I was unprepared for the profound emotional effect this powerful book had on me. When I think about the injustice and the traumatic hardships of these brave women, it still makes me heartbroken and fuming with rage.

The Radium Girls is the story of the girls employed to paint luminous numbers on watch faces and instrument panels in the early 1900s. After radium was first discovered in 1898, it became known to have a glow-in-the-dark quality when mixed, and companies latched on to the profit potential.

During WWI, the demand for luminous products skyrocketed. Hundreds of girls and young women, mostly teenagers but some as young as 11, were employed to paint watch dials and instrument panels with this magical, luminescent paint. They were taught to press the tip of their paint brushes between their lips to form a fine point. The process was known as “lip…dip…paint.”

Initially, no one knew the danger of painting with radium-infused paint, so the girls in the radium-dial factories were unconcerned that the glittering chemical covered their bodies from head to toe – until they began to fall mysteriously ill.

By the time the girls started losing their teeth and pieces of their jaws, the company knew the dangers, and they did nothing to warn the girls. They even paid off dentists and doctors to not disclose the causes of the illnesses. They put profits above the lives of trusting young women.

What makes The Radium Girls so captivating is that Moore brings these girls to life with her meticulously researched details. She describes the excruciating pain the girls suffered as their spines deteriorated or as they watched their friends slowly die from mysterious blood disorders or cancer. The girls lost so much of their lives to this terrible poison, and it was made even more unbearable by the company’s callous reactions to their sufferings.

In an era when women were considered second-class citizens and were taught not to “make a fuss,” 14 brave plaintiffs sought compensation from the company. The legal strategy of the heartless employer was to drag out the case as long as possible so that the women would not survive long enough to testify. Even though some of the women were in so much pain they could barely sit up in the courtroom, they would not quit.

Their legal victory in 1939 (after eight appeals) and the public awareness it raised led to Industrial Health Reforms that would protect future generations. It also ensured employers would be held financially responsible for workplace-related illnesses.

I also recommend Kate Moore’s most recent book,

The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men who Tried to Make her Disappear,

Sourcebooks, 2021

This is the true story of Elizabeth Packard, a wife and mother in 1860s Illinois who fought tirelessly to change the laws that kept her unjustly locked in an insane asylum for years.

Through these two books, Kate Moore has showcased real women standing up for their rights with strength, dignity and courage. Their stories have resonated with me, and I highly recommend both books.