Updated: Oct 28, 2021
By: Faith Brammer
Kate Moore’s best selling book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, brings to light the true story of the young women who were exposed to radium in factories, and their struggle for the implementation of worker’s rights.
The Bright Future of Radium
During the 1920s, hundreds of teenage girls and young women were employed by the United States Radium Corporation painting glow-in-the-dark watches. In order to get a precise brushstroke, women would practice “lip pointing,” licking the brush in order to keep the brush at a fine point. Each woman detailed about 200 watches a day, ingesting a bit of radium with each stroke. Managers ensured the women that radium was harmless. Since it had been discovered as an effective cancer treatment by Marie Curie in the 1890s, U.S. Radium hailed the chemical as a panacea, marketing bottles of it like energy drinks. One of the popular tonics on market was Radithor, distilled water mixed with radium, claiming to be a cure-all for any ailment.
"Because it was successful, it somehow became an all-powerful health tonic, taken in the same way as we take vitamins today -- people were fascinated with its power," said Kate Moore, author of "The Radium Girls," in an interview with CNN.
Dust from the radium would float in the air, settling onto the women’s clothes and hair, which at the time, was almost glamorous. Women would head to a speakeasy afterward, quite literally glowing--the factory employees were deemed “the shining women.”
A Darkening Horizon
Concerns about radium were already popping up in the 1920s, but the effects of radium poisoning took years to manifest themselves. The symptoms would often be small at first, a toothache or an aching limb. In an interview with NPR, Moore explains how the symptoms became more and more gruesome over time,
“All of their teeth would fall out, sometimes replaced by ulcers that would then seep pus constantly. And that aching limb would start to spontaneously fracture. And it might not be a limb, it might be their spine, it might be a jawbone.”
Horrified at what was happening to them, women eagerly sought a diagnosis. U.S. Radium had company doctors they sent to visit women who were current employees of the factory. The common diagnosis? Syphilis. A diagnosis many women would not want to talk about, it kept them from decrying the dangers of radium and kept the company, which was aware of radium’s dangers at this point, in business. In her interview with CNN, Moore explains that,
“The first death occurred in 1922, when 22-year-old Mollie Maggia died after reportedly enduring a year of pain. Although her death certificate erroneously stated that she died of syphilis, she was actually suffering from a condition called "radium jaw....The radium was destroying the bone and literally drilling holes in the women's jaws while they were still alive," said Moore.
Fighting for Change
In 1925, U.S. Radium employee Grace Fryer, along with four other women, including Mollie’s sisters Quinta Maggia McDonald and Albina Maggia Larice, decided to sue the company but had to spend two years looking for a lawyer willing to take on the case. In 1928, after a grueling battle, the court ruled in favor of the radium girls and the case became a precursor to occupational hazard law.
Moore wanted to share the legacy of these women and the ripples they created in both the political world. Not only were they forerunners to the implementation of worker’s compensation and occupational hazard labor laws, but they agreed to give their bodies to science to study the internal effects of radium.
"In the 1950s, during the Cold War, many agreed voluntarily to be studied by scientists, even with intrusive examinations because they had been exposed for prolonged periods of time," said Moore to CNN, ”Almost everything we know about radiation inside the human body, we owe to them.”
From Page to Screen
In 2018, a film adaptation based on Moore’s book premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was eventually released on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Although the story the novel tells is one of the past, its principal issues can still be seen in our society today. In an interview with WABE, Moore says that,
“When we were making the movie, we were thinking of events such as the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the way people talk about holding a cell phone up to your brain for hours on end...I would say in the COVID crisis...You think of COVID and radium as elements we don’t know everything about or they didn’t know everything about radium at the time....You think about the way science is being denied and governments are turning away from the idea of people suffering, falling sick, and dying. Asking the question “Is it safe to go back to work?”
Shocking and heartbreaking, the story of the Radium Girls is one for all generations, a look back at the social injustice that still runs rampant in the workplace today. The fight for justice never ends, and the stories of the young women remind us that anyone can make a difference.