Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What I Read: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

I received The Radium Girls in a free ebook form from NetGalley, which is both good and bad. Good, because I was possibly spared pictures of jawbones rotting out of women's mouths. Bad, because an ebook means I had a harder time tracking all the names and dates (and also that I read it while commuting and so often got misty-eyed in public, which is not something I feel totally comfortable with!). And I also didn't get to see all the before photos of the radium girls, which is probably how they would prefer to be remembered.

I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout. Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that's largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn't go into much detail about it. I didn't think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March's play These Shining Lives.

I received the book in December and just finished it a week ago. That's unusually slow going for me, I have to admit. Part of it was life (I was busy with Swedish), part of it was the format (ebooks are not great for me when there are lots of names and dates to keep track of), and part of it was the ghastly content.

I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That's a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It's one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman's comp case take a few years. It's another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you're dying of cancer. Not to mention these companies did the most in trying to dodge responsibility, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. They insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning, thereby adding an extra dose of slut-shaming indignity to it all. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman's compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn't poisonous at all.

People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading, especially given that organizations like the EPA and OSHA seem to be on the public's shit list. Yet these are the organizations that cleaned up the mess that United States Radium left in Orange, NJ (the clean-up cost the equivalent of millions of dollars; USR paid a few hundred thousand); that protected all future employees who handled radium or other dangerous substances in their work.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. If there's any takeaway from The Radium Girls, surely it's that. The profit motive will squelch all but the strongest moral imperative, whether it's a luminous watch factory in New Jersey or sweatshop labor in Bangladesh. Robust worker protection and compensation laws are a society's most effective protection against large-scale corporate injustice; "a shield to protect, and not a sword to destroy" the humanity of workers, in the words of the Ottawa plaintiffs' lawyer, Lev Grossman.

His son, Len Grossman, has scanned and made public his father's scrapbook surrounding the case. It's worth browsing.

The Radium Girls is set to be published in the US in May this year (it's already out in the UK). If you can't get a preview copy from NetGalley or from the UK now, I really hope you'll pick The Radium Girls in May. Until then, there are a couple other books on the subject:

Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform

Other books touch on the radium girls tangentially:

Romancing the Atom
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

There's also the documentary Radium City, which focuses on the history of the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, IL.

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