The story of the radium girls represents a watershed moment in the history of workers' rights and stands as a horrifying reminder of how big companies have taken advantage of their employees. It's a shocking story, though surprisingly few people know it: female workers at a series of U.S. factories were hired in the 1910s and 1920s to paint watch dials with luminous radium-infused paint, unknowingly contracting radium poisoning. As their illnesses came to light and their employers attempted cover-ups, legal battles raged, and one group of radium girls won a landmark 1938 ruling. But who were these women, really, behind the headlines and legal histories? Bestselling author Kate Moore delves into their lives in her finely researched nonfiction page-turner The Radium Girls.
Moore's goal in writing the book was to bring the historical record to life: "I wanted to walk in step with the women and describe each moment as though it were happening here and now," she says. "I hoped that, in this way, readers would be able to engage with the twists and turns of this decades-old history and to empathize with the individual radium girls. I wanted the women to feel like friends."
Moore dives into the booming business of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in early 20th-century Newark and Orange, N.J. She focuses her story on a few of those factories' new employees in the lead-up to World War I, particularly on Katherine Schaub in New Jersey and on Catherine Wolfe, who worked at a similar factory in Ottawa, Ill.
Only 14 years old when she landed the job, Katherine had no idea that the "liquid sunshine" she was painting on watch dials was actually poisoning her. Her employer and other companies who employed these girls ignored pleas to do more research into the effects of the paint after evidence suggesting its dangers was found. Women working in these factories were told to "lip-point" their brushes—dipping them into the radium solution, then putting the brushes in their mouths to create a fine tip—as they painted the dials, causing them to actually ingest the dangerous chemical.
The book got its start while Moore was directing a play about the radium girls. Her interest was piqued, and she began to do deeper research, realizing that these particular women's powerful stories were collecting dust in archives, waiting to be told.
Coming to the stories through the play "had a massive impact" on how she decided to write the book, Moore says: "My actors and I strove to create well-rounded, believable characters, and I wanted to do the same with the book. I wanted to tell the story in a dramatic way: not dry and dusty, but gripping and page-turning. Most of all, I think, having got to know the women and their sacrifice through the play, I felt close to them and I wanted to bring their story to as wide an audience as possible."
The Radium Girls moves seamlessly back and forth between daily struggles in the factory—and later in the courtroom— and the world-shaking events that brought booming business to radium factories in 1917. With America entering World War I, demand for all things glow in the dark skyrocketed and the factories expanded. The book's marvelous interplay of macro and micro details required years of research—including tracking down many living relatives of the radium girls—and a novelist's ability to create a lived environment out of those facts. The book, Moore says, "reads like a novel, but it still has to be rooted in fact."
In fact, there was too much information to fit it all into the book, so Moore is building a website as an added resource for readers. The more information available the better, Moore believes, because factories are still exploiting their workers. "Companies don't adhere to safety standards; they obstruct investigations; there is negligence as well as orchestrated cover-ups. Today, I also think companies are closer to legislators than ever before, something I find worrying," Moore says. "I think when we read similar stories in the press today we need to remember that behind the headlines and statistics there are always human beings—and wildlife—whose lives are being irreparably damaged." As with the blockbuster films The Imitation Game and Hidden Figures, The Radium Girls brings a crucial historical moment to vivid life, standing as a cautionary tale for the present and future.
Also check out this podcast, in which Moore describes writing The Radium Glrls.