When the Curies successfully isolated the radioactive radium in 1902, private firms raced to occupy the market of luminescent watches. At the time, radium was not only thought to be safe, but also beneficial upon contact and even consumption. So when factories girls who were paid to paint watch faces put radium-dipped paintbrushes into their mouths, few expected the dire consequences that would later manifest in their bodies.
Except the companies themselves. But valuing profit over everything else, they created an illusion of healthfulness and gaslit the girls into silence, even when they began to suffer from tooth loss, non-healing wounds, miscarriages, bone fractures, cancer, and death itself.
As their employees suffered, these companies denied all knowledge and responsibility of their wrongdoings. Their lawyers refused to compensate for the lives lost. Their witnesses lied in court. The companies whose products illuminated the night had become night itself, and it was only after more than a decade of lawsuit that the women finally won their justice.
This book really reminds me of Bad Blood, which made my top 10 list in 2019. Despite the amount of information and the number of people involved in the case, Kate Moore is able to bring to life each woman’s pain and strength. Moore also writes with incredible style, with breath-gripping developments every other page and foreboding cliffhangers at the end of each chapter.
The Radium Girls are remembered today for their pursuit of justice and the consequent implementation of labor protection laws, but beneath their almost martyr-like demeanors were just ordinary human beings. Human beings who wanted to help others, human beings who wanted to live to see their grandchildren, and human beings who rebelled against the way capitalism had trampled over their crippled bodies.
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