By Ashly Moore Sheldon • January 21, 2021
During WWI, hundreds of young women were employed to paint tiny glowing numbers on watch faces and dials using radium-infused paint. To achieve the precision required for this task, they were instructed to sharpen their brush tip with their lips—ingesting a bit of the green glowing paint with each brushstroke. Although radium was known to be toxic, the workers were assured that this practice was perfectly safe—even healthy.
The luminosity of the paint was, of course, the whole point. And by the end of their shifts, the women would glow in the dark. Some made the most of this "perk," wearing their best frocks to the plant so they'd shine for nights out at dance halls and speakeasies after work.
But the grim reality was that these women, many of them teens, were being slowly poisoned by the paint they swallowed. The insidious nature of this toxin meant that symptoms may not appear until years later. When ingested, radium mimics calcium and gets incorporated into bone matter, eventually causing bones to literally disintegrate. Early on radium poisoning may have meant the loss of a tooth, but as it progressed the bones of those affected erupted with painful ulcers and crumbled within their bodies. To learn more about this element—the good and the bad—read Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation.
Newly streaming on Netflix, the movie Radium Girls—based on the novel of the same name by Kate Moore—chronicles the legal battle initiated by two of these brave young women. Even as they suffered painful deaths, they fought for justice, leaving a legacy of protections for future workers.
The groundbreaking legal battle taken on by the Radium Girls is just one of many such stories. Throughout history, and even today, working class women have had to fight for safety, fairness, and respect.
National Book Award finalist Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin is a YA nonfiction account of the history behind the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people, mostly women and immigrants, who were locked inside the burning building. The incident shed a light on the terrible working conditions in the garment industry and led to activism and legislation requiring improved safety standards. Here are some of our other recommendations to learn more about the history behind workplace activism.
What is most striking about The Radium Girls and similar accounts from history is the David and Goliath dynamic. There is something tremendously appealing about a story in which a powerful, evil force is taken down by an unlikely foe, an ordinary individual, driven by a commitment to justice.
These kinds of stories translate so well to film and we came up with a bunch of titles we love—all featuring real-life women champions.