In the early 20th century, well-paying jobs for women were few and far between. In The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore tells the story of young women in Orange, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois who were hired by United States Radium Corporation and Radiant Dial Corporation for lucrative positions painting luminous dials on clocks and watches using radium-based paint. Radium was touted as a life-giving element and the Radium Girls, as they came to be known, who worked at the factory were assured that the glowing radium paint was perfectly safe to work with. They were told that it would even “make their cheeks rosy,” so the women mixed their radium paint, pointed the paint-covered brushes on their tongues to get the finest possible point, and painted.
One by one, the dial painters began to get sick; no doctor could determine the cause and no treatment was effective. When the women began to die, five of the New Jersey dial painters sought compensation from U.S. Radium Corporation. Grace Fryer, Katherine Schaub, Edna Hussman, Albina Larice, and Quinta McDonald spent years trying to find a lawyer to take their case. U.S.R.C. had long denied that radium was hazardous, buried any evidence of the dangers, and dismissed the women’s claims. Raymond Berry took the women’s case and successfully fought U.S.R.C. in court, many years after dial painters began dying. A group of dial painters in Ottawa, Illinois sued Radiant Dial Corporation soon after and won their case after a long legal battle.
The legal case of the Radium Girls was ground-breaking in the field of labor rights and changed labor safety standards forever. Because of their law suit, legal precedents were set for suing an employer, safety standards were greatly improved for dial painters, and the information gathered from testing dial painters both alive and dead went on to set the safety standards for The Manhattan Project and later atomic tests. The Radium Girls is an inspiring book, both as a reminder of what one small group of women can accomplish with enough determination and for the attitude of the women in the face of adversity.