'The Radium Girls' Is Haunted By Glowing Ghosts
In 1888, the match girls of London went on strike.
Their reason was a particularly horrifying working condition: ingesting phosphorus. A girl with "phossy jaw" would literally glow in the dark as her jawbone slowly disintegrated. This strike was a fight for their lives. Against expectations, they won — a watershed for Victorian industrial workers. Later strikers invoked the match girls as inspiration; girls who'd come together so something so dangerous couldn't happen again.
But no one told Mollie Maggia about the match girls before she went to the United States Radium Corporation in New Jersey, just after World War I. She painted glowing numbers on dials with their radium paint, licking her paintbrush for accuracy as she'd been taught, and it killed her.
Maggia was the first of the girls at USRC to die in agony from radium poisoning, but far from the last. And the horror at the heart of Kate Moore's Radium Girls lies in the way doctors, the company, and the law failed these women as they sought justice for the lives they were losing.
The book, infuriating for necessary reasons, traces the women at two dial-making factories — the USRC in New Jersey, and Radiant Dial in Illinois. And Radium Girls spares us nothing of their suffering; though at times the foreshadowing reads more like a true-crime story, Moore is intent on making the reader viscerally understand the pain in which these young women were living, and through which they had to fight in order to get their problems recognized.
And honestly, the true-crime parallels might be warranted. The fact that the radium girls faced the same battles as their Victorian predecessors is less surprising when you consider how many of those battles are still happening: Adequate health care, adequate compensation, and — crucially — effective worker protections through a legal system designed to favor corporations. Radium killed these young women, but Moore leaves no room for misunderstanding: The companies murdered them.
Radium killed these young women, but Moore leaves no room for misunderstanding: The companies murdered them.
The history of business is a history of violence. The worst descriptions of disease (and I'll be surprised if you don't run your tongue across your teeth at least once) can't match the fatal callousness of the companies that knew the dangers of radium long before they ever admitted them. There's a reason Moore repeatedly notes the girls' phosphorescence as ghostly; the companies knew they were doomed. (Radiant Dial tested its girls and never gave them their results, even as internal correspondence was sorting them by radiation levels to see who'd be first to die.)
The outrages don't stop there, of course; this book's awash in crooked doctors, shameless lawyers, and company men. But though Moore's carefully sketches the lives and friendships of the women affected, the companies emerge as the most vivid characters — villains that would seem cartoonishly evil, except for how familiar it all sounds. (A New Jersey dentist who treated several afflicted women went to USRC looking for a payout for his silence, since it was "customary for experts to testify for the people who pa[y] them.")
At moments, Moore's narrative style and passion for the radium girls' story can tip over into an odd hard sell; she writes of one of the women, "She is still remembered now — you are still remembering her now," as if afraid we won't put this story in a wider context otherwise. But Radium Girls is frighteningly easily to set in a wider context. The story of real women at the mercy of businesses who see them only as a potential risk to the bottom line is haunting precisely because of how little has changed; the glowing ghosts of the radium girls haunt us still.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.
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