Wine, Women, and Revolution
The Radium Girls
In this episode of Wine, Women, and Revolution, Heather is joined by Kate Moore, author of Radium Girls. Radium Girls tells the story of a group of women who were slowly poisoned by radium paint their job encouraged them to ingest, and their fight for justice against overwhelming odds. This is a tragic story of capitalism, exploitation, and death. These women changed the world because of their strength and dedication. We all owe them a debt and need to learn their names and histories.
Transcript auto generated
Kate Moore 0:00
But the company told them no, it’s absolutely safe. There’s no reason to be afraid. But of course, that wasn’t true. And actually, it wasn’t true even at the time. Because yes, you know what’s marketed it all the newspapers and magazines and the drugstores is that radium is a wonder drug. But actually, when you look at who was funding the research that supposedly said that, it was the radium firms who were making money out of all those products, the radium chocolate and radium water and the radium dressings and so on.
Heather Warburton 0:36
This is Wine Women and Revolution with your host, Heather Warburton. Hi, and welcome to Wine Women and Revolution. I’m your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on Create Your Future Productions. You can find us online at www.YourFutureCreator.com. Follow us on all the social medias and get us wherever you get your podcasts from. Today, I have an interview that’s been so long in the making. I’ve been so excited about it for so long. I think I reached out to my guest today, not this past summer but the summer before to have her as a guest on my show. And she’s like no, no, I’m working on a new book. Hit me up again in the spring. Well, we all know what happened in the spring, COVID destroyed everything. And then over the course of the late summer, I dissolved my previous company and started up this brand new company here so. But everything finally worked out and all the stars managed to align so I’m so excited to have my guest today. Today I have with me New York Times Best Seller author of the basically modern classic of Radium Girls, Kate Moore Welcome to the show.
Kate Moore 1:45
Thank you so much. Lovely to be here at last.
Heather Warburton 1:49
It took us a while but uh, you know, your book pretty much i think is on the shelf of every leftist woman that I know.
Kate Moore 1:58
That’s that’s an amazing thing to say.
Heather Warburton 2:03
But for anyone that hasn’t heard of Radium Girls, can you give me a little summary of what the general gist of the book is about?
Kate Moore 2:12
Sure. Well, I think the most important thing to say is it’s a history book. It’s all true, it’s nonfiction. And it tells the true story of a group of American women from the First World War and roaring 20s era who were poisoned by the radium paint that they work with. Their employers refuse to admit responsibility. So these incredibly strong women embark on a landmark fight for justice.
Heather Warburton 2:38
So what got you interested in this subject?
Kate Moore 2:42
Well, I came to the story of the Radium Girls through a play actually, and didn’t know anything about them. It literally was just looking. I typed into Google great plays for women. Because as a female director, I like to tell stories about women I wanted to put on a play with great parts for actresses. And one of the plays that came back was called These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich. And it’s about the Ottawa, Illinois dial painters. So I got into the story through a play. And what really connected with me about it was the women themselves. For me, it was always about the radium girls and the individual radium girls as well, because I think if people have ever heard of their story, they just know the sort of moniker “the radium girls”, and they don’t know about Grace Fryer, and Catherine Donahue and Pearl Payne, and all the individual women that I write about in the book. And for me, as I connected with the story is I directed the play, I just fell in love with these women, I think their strength was extraordinary. Their sacrifice was off the scale, they impacted so much in health and safety and legislation in science. And I was outraged that people didn’t know their names and didn’t know their individual stories. And so for me, my connection to the story was always about the women, their strength and the heartbreak of what happens to them as well. And I just felt this sort of burning passion to help them be remembered. And that’s why I’m so excited to be talking to you. Because you know, any opportunity I have to share the story of these women, you know, I want to take that and communicate it to people because they’re so special to me and so important to the world.
Heather Warburton 4:24
And since I live here in New Jersey, you know, it definitely does have a very personal connection that you know, I think everyone in New Jersey has at least tangentially heard of the story. But I don’t think they had ever heard the names of all the specific women and their life stories. Like they weren’t just the radium girls, they were women outside of this as well. So you managed to capture a lot of that. And you actually found a lot of their personal writings when you were doing your research, right.
Kate Moore 4:50
Yeah I mean, those moments as a writer and researcher when you’re sort of in a dusty backroom of a small museum and you’re sort of scouring through these sort of dusty archives and you find, you know, handwritten letters of, you know, Catherine Donahue, in this case, absolutely spine tingling moment, because to be able to read the words that the women themselves have left behind, you know, to understand their experience through their own way of expressing it is obviously absolute gold to us. And so important in terms of giving them a platform for them to tell their story. And for me, that’s what it’s all about, you know, and I think if anyone reads the book, you’ll see a, it’s written almost like a novel. But as I say, it is entirely 100% nonfiction. But it’s written hopefully in a way that’s engaging and introduces you to these historical figures as people always like friends that you can sort of go on the journey with. But secondly, the thing about the book is, it’s scattered with these quotes, you know, from the women’s first person accounts that I found in my archival research. And I hope through that to read the radium girls is always to hear from the radium girls themselves, you know, to, you know, it’s almost like you could perhaps sit down with a coffee with Grace Fryer, or Catherine Donahue and you can hear from them what it was like to be a radium girl, because, as you say, I’m quoting from their letters, their diaries, the court transcripts, for example. So it is absolutely then, in their own words, telling us their story.
Heather Warburton 6:22
Yeah, and I thought that you did that very well. It was very personal. And that’s kind of what I try to do with my show is, you know, it’s like you sit down and have a glass of wine with someone, it used to be at my kitchen table that I did this, Now, of course, we’re doing it across the Atlantic Ocean. So that’s, I love that kind of conversational like, you really do feel like you get to know something about these women. Aside from just what happened to them. What happened to them was horrendous though. And that’s kind of what I wanted to dive into first a little bit was, I guess, at the time radium had just been discovered, or by the Curies. And people thought it was good for you at the time at first. And it was in all sorts of things. And even as things they were starting to realize maybe this isn’t good for you, that women these women were never given that information. Right. They were encouraged to almost ingest the stuff. Do you want to talk a little bit about that.
Kate Moore 7:14
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, yeah, you’re right. I mean, this was early days, you know, radium was discovered in 1898. And as I say, this is still sort of the First World War era when radium dial painting becomes big business, partly because of the First World War, you know, happening and people needed glow in the dark dials, which is what these women were partly painting. And yeah, you’re right, people at the time thought radium was this cure all, this sort of wonder drug. And it was put into chocolates, you know, to sort of give you an extra pep, you know, not just the sugar and the cocoa but a little sprinkling of radium as well. It was you know, just using everyday dressings and pills to treat hay fever and things like that, almost taken as a kind of vitamin to give you you know, energy you know, people drank it as, you know, radium water was a health tonic. And so this is the world the radium girls that are operating in. And, and you’re right when they go to work, you know, fair play to them, they’re given the instruction to do something called lip pointing, which is where they put their paint brushes between their lips to make a fine point on the paintbrush for the delicate painting work that they’re having to do. But the radium girls, one in particular called May Cubberley. Who I write about and, you know, she said the first thing we asked was does this stuff hurt you? Because even though it was seen as this wonder drug, obviously you’re told to put this paint in your mouth, you’re going to check is it safe. But the company told them no, it’s absolutely safe in. There’s no reason to be afraid. But of course, that wasn’t true. And actually, it wasn’t true even at the time. Because yes, you know, what’s marketed in all the newspapers and magazines and the drugstores is that radium is this wonder drug. But actually, when you look at who was funding the research that supposedly said that, it was the radium firms who were making money out of all those products, the radium chocolate, and radium water, and the radium dressings and so on. And actually they sort of, you know, funded the scientific research and funded the literature that promoted radium as a cure all, but they were the ones making money out of it. So they sort of found in the science what they wanted to find, and they discounted all other evidence to the contrary. But of course, Grace Ryle, and Catherine Donahue know nothing about that they’re simply assured, not only that radium is safe to work with, but that they’re perfectly safe to swallow it and to put the paint brushes in their mouth and that’s what the radium girls have to do. That’s how they painted on how they were instructed by their companies to paint.
Heather Warburton 9:49
At the same time though the men that were working in the factories in the back had like led aprons on
Kate Moore 9:55
Exactly yeah, this is the crazy thing. So the sort of the difference, other than gender is the man in the labs, we’re handling large amounts of radium. And at this time, even though it’s very early days in radium discovery, they already know that radium can cause you know, radiation burns on human skin, they know that it can travel through the body and treat cancer. They know that they need to protect scientists and lab workers from that immense radiation because people have already died from being exposed to radiation. So yeah, the men in the labs were handling large amounts, given all this protective equipment, the women are told it’s perfectly safe to swallow it. But they were only using a tiny, tiny, near miniscule amount of radium in the paint, which is why they thought it was safe. It was only a small amount put in the chocolate, etc. But as I say, actually, who said that a small amount was safe, where a large amount is fatal. Well, it’s the radium firms making the money.
Heather Warburton 10:55
Right. Isn’t that kind of always the way? They’re funding their own research and find, surprisingly enough finding exactly what they want to fund.
Kate Moore 11:02
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I recall when I was doing my research. And you know, the story stretches into the 1930s, as well. And I was looking through the newspapers and so on. And there were loads of adverts for cigarettes, saying a cigarette a day keeps the doctor away. And obviously, we see the same thing happening in that industry as well, you know, exactly the same thing. you’re told. it’s beneficial for health. And actually, as we all know, you know, it will kill you. Right.
Heather Warburton 11:31
Actually, it’s a great parallel because at the time, cigarette smoking was considered this very glamorous thing in the early days. And much like the radium girls, they were painting, like their eyelids and their lips, and they would go out to clubs that night and be glowing, right?
Kate Moore 11:46
Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s sort of it’s heartbreaking to look back on it, because these women thought they were so lucky to work with it. And also, not only was it glamorous, but it was very well paid. So radium girls were sort of, you know, they’re almost like matinee, idols, you know, and they were known within their town as well, because they were immediately identifiable, as you say, they’d be covered in this glowing dust and this and this glow from having worked in the studio all day. And they would wear their party frocks to work so that when they went out in music halls, the speakeasies and the roaring 20s, the radium girls would be the ones shining and shimmering, like fireflies on the dance floor, because they were covered all over in it, you know, and, as you say, also would, you know, use a bit of the leftover paint, to paint their fingernails or, you know, highlight their sort of dress buttons, or the buckles and that sort of thing. You know, one woman, it was said, even painted her teeth with it, for a smile that would glow in the dark. And for me, it’s just heartbreaking that that because you can imagine the joy and the thought of, you know, joy for life, and not just that sort of energy that the women would have had to be these glowing, glorious creatures, you know, so excited to have this job that everyone wanted, that was well paid, that was glamorous, that got to work with this wonder element. And when, you know, we’re obviously looking back on it, knowing exactly what that happens to them, and how awful it is that they were being so free with this dangerous substance. But of course, they were told it was perfectly safe.
Heather Warburton 13:24
Yeah, I think that is one of the more tragic elements of the story is because they were such good paying jobs, whole families, people would get the jobs and then bring their relatives or sisters in. So ultimately, when the effects didn’t start happening, they were devastating entire families.
Kate Moore 13:40
Exactly, I thought was one of the things I found really moving actually, you know, reading about sisters sharing hospital rooms, for example, you know, facing the end, together, when you think about the reality of what’s that, like, you know, your sister that you’ve grown up with all your life, and you’re they’re facing the end together. And as you say, this is devastating entire families because, of course, those sisters are part of a family they have a mother or father losing a daughter before their time they have a husband losing a wife, you know, many of the women were mothers as well. Those children are having to grow up without their moms you know, the whole thing is just absolutely heartbreaking. When you look at the family repercussions of losing these people as I say that’s always to me what was essential to remember these are people being ripped from their families and their lives before their time.
Heather Warburton 14:30
And there was one story in particular I can’t remember if it was in your book or if I found it when I was doing research for this interview of someone who just shared a bed with one of these radium girls ended up getting sick as well.
Kate Moore 14:41
That’s right its in my epilogue and say yes, that’s exactly what happened. And you know these because these women obviously were taking home radioactive material, you know, they were covered in it, whether it was on a party dress or simply on a work smock. And, and you know, they would walk it all over town, they would bring it back home with them. And yeah, there was a story in the archive of a sister of a radium girl who herself did not dial paint. But she died of radiation poisoning because she shared a bed with her sister.
Heather Warburton 15:11
Wow. That’s so heartbreaking. And the companies were intentionally not only gaslighting, but falsifying reports. They were totally the mustache twirling villains of like, you know, a John Grisham novel or something like, yeah, they were falsifying reports at the time, right?
Kate Moore 15:32
Completely. Yeah, I think, for me, it was one of the most shocking things that I was researching the book was, you know, to look through some of the company’s records, which were available to look through, and seeing in black and white, exactly what they were doing, but they knew it was dangerous that they knew, you know, it was killing people and killing their workers. And yet, they don’t admit responsibility. And in fact, they go out of their way to try and discredit the women, you know, they hire private detectives to dig up dirt on them. They hire so called specialists to put out misleading data to you know, reach opposite conclusions that radium is not dangerous, even though all the evidence points to the fact that it is. That they pay their own experts to come up with their own, you know, verdict of what’s going on. And just absolutely the most egregious and greedy and callous behavior you can imagine when you’ve got these women who, you know, are literally dying before them, you know, and that they do things like trying to stretch out the court cases so that the women will die before the cases come to court. And it just absolutely appalling, really appalling, appalling corporate greed.
Heather Warburton 16:45
Yeah, that was it was if there’s ever a good example of how evil capitalism can be, yeah, it’s this story, because these people were making a lot of money on these girls lives, you know?
Kate Moore 16:57
Yeah, exactly. And saying, you know, the workers were expendable. Basically, it was all about the bottom line and protecting the bottom line. Because of course, once the women do start to get sick, and once they start causing a fuss and, you know, people are starting to realize well actually is radium dangerous. The companies of course, try to do everything they can to shut it down. Because if radium is dangerous, then who’s going to buy the chocolate, the dressings, the radium water, you know, their whole industry is at stake. And so they fight tooth and nail to try to protect it.
Heather Warburton 17:30
And at the same time, they’re firing women for getting sick. That was also one of the heartbreaking stories in your book.
Kate Moore 17:38
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah, you’re, you’re giving a bad impression to the company, you know, because as I say, you know, they, they wanted to quash the rumors, you know, as the women are sort of saying, well, we think it’s our work that’s making us sick. And this is a story where very much it’s a sisterhood of women, you know, sharing stories of their bodies hurting and their doctors discrediting them, they’re not listening to them, which often happens, I think, when women are raising medical issues, you know, if the doctors don’t understand it, they kind of say, Oh, it’s all in your head, it’s just nerves. And so it’s the women sort of banding together, seeing those connections joining the dots. And, you know, they’re the ones that are sort of bringing this to public attention. And obviously, that that leads to people’s lives being saved. But it is the women totally who are who are making this happen.
Heather Warburton 18:29
So they did eventually band together and try to file some lawsuits. But at the time, workman’s comp was very not good in the state of New Jersey, right? There were some workman’s comp that was very limited when these women were trying to file lawsuits
Kate Moore 18:43
Very limited. I mean, that there was actually some, which is something that it was a very limited, it was limited to just nine specific compensable diseases. And if you didn’t have one of those diseases, you know, you’ve got nothing. And I think one of the, for me, one of the really interesting things about the sort of legal aspect of the story is the way they fight to try to get that legislation changed. And sort of some of the machinations of industry that they sort of agree to change the rules in some way, but they write the law in a way that means actually, no one can ever claim compensation. I thought I thought those sort of machinations are quite interesting as well about, you know, even when a story in a scandal is exposed, how businesses will still protect their interests, and now work with politicians and legislators, in order to do so. So you think you’re winning a trial, but actually, they’ve sort of pulled strings in a way to protect their own interests.
Heather Warburton 19:41
And in the lawsuits was one of the other things that really struck me was, in one case, they’re like, Oh, well, this doesn’t apply to you because radium is a poison. And in the very next case, so like, I don’t know, radium is not dangerous.
Kate Moore 19:54
Yeah, it’s I mean, they, as I said, they tried every legal loophole that they possibly could you know. The thing that was a real sticking point for the radium girls was something called the statute of limitations where you only had, you know, for the limited. workmen’s compensation laws that were available, they had a two year limit on filing suit. But radium poisoning in the way that the radium girls were poisoned, you know, having ingested this very small amount of paint that then settled in their bodies, it took years to show itself, it’s an incredibly insidious poisoning. So usually, it wasn’t till about five years after she had been poisoned, that a radium girl began to get sick. She’s obviously three years after the statute has expired. And so that was a big part of trying to, you know, find their way around that. And obviously, you know, once you know, you’ve got a disease that it takes that long, you know, it’s you can’t justify having a law that has a statute that says that and so you’ve got to try and battle to overturn that to protect other workers in future. So all of this is part of the story as well of them, battling, you know, a world that is stacked against them, you know, these powerful corporations, and these women who are seemingly powerless, and certainly the companies underestimate exactly what the radium girls are capable of.
Heather Warburton 21:16
Right? In some instances, even the entire town was against them. Because then by this point in time, it was the depression, there aren’t a lot of jobs. And so this company says, you know, we pay so well, so the town is standing up for the company over the girls that are dying in their own communities.
Kate Moore 21:33
Yeah, exactly. And that, for me, really emphasizes you know, how strong they were because they weren’t getting supported by their communities. You know, it really was something you know, where their neighbors would turn their backs on them that there wasn’t that support there. And these women went out there on their own fighting, not only for themselves, but for their friends and their sisters, and for future dial painters to try to protect them to ensure that no one else would suffer in the way that they did. And, for me, I think that’s one of the most special things about these women was the altruism with which they embarked on their fight. You know, they were really driven by the fact that they didn’t want anyone else to go through what they were going through. Because for the radium girls know that, you know, there is no hope, there is very little money, but they’re doing this and they’re putting themselves through this fight, you know, literally giving evidence on their deathbeds using their last breath, to speak out against this company who has poisoned them systematically. And they’re doing it all for the good of others, because, you know, they personally don’t have any hope left. But they hope that in their sacrifice, there will be a greater good.
Heather Warburton 22:47
Well, I guess that’s what I wanted to move into now. Is the amount of contributions these women have made to the world, you start kind of listing some of what they did and people learned from them, and the changes to the world that they made. Could you list a few of those things, ways in which they drastically change the world.
Kate Moore 23:06
So I mean, for me, the sort of killer one really is the impact they had, long after they died. Firstly, moving into the Second World War, and the Manhattan Project is going on. And, you know, obviously, everyone working on the Manhattan Project is handling radioactive materials in a way that’s never been done before. And the lead scientist on that project said he was haunted by memory of the radium girls and what happened to them. And because of that, he put in place safety protections for his workers, because they investigated the radioactive materials they were using, they were found to be biomedically, very similar to radium. And so because of that, he said, Well, you know, look what, what happened to the radium girls, we cannot have this happening to our workers. So all those 1000s of workers were protected because of them. We’re moving into beyond that the 1950s. And this, to me is the real thing. There was a nuclear arms race going on, you know, radioactive fallout, coming back down to earth, because of these above ground atomic tests that are happening, that is polluting the entire world. There was something called strontium 90, which was a new radioactive isotope that was part of the fallout from these atomic bomb tests. Again, they ran tests was found to be biomedically, very similar to radium. And but it was newly created, and they were like, well, how can we how can we figure out if actually this is going to be okay for the human race given? It’s raining down all over the globe? Or is it going to be okay? And the radium girls were studied for decades to try and give scientists the answer. So that was any women left alive, voluntarily submitted to scientific testing, to give the scientists the answers that they wanted, and the women who had not made it had often donated their bodies or the science You know, to use what they had learned from these women who had passed away, in order to tell us that actually strontium 90 is way too dangerous, you know, it gets into the human food chain, it gets into our bodies, it settles in our bones, just as radium did in the radium girls, and therefore it’s not safe. And so partly thanks to those studies, President Kennedy signed the limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited those above ground atomic tests, which stopped that radioactive fallout, which protected every single person on this planet. I mean, they save the world, I don’t think it’s, you know, to much to sort of say that, that, you know, the scientific legacy they left was extraordinary, or not only, you know, through that very specific sort of political point. And, but also, then they gifted the world, the scientific knowledge of what happens when you have, you know, internal radiation, you know, there was no group of people in the world that had been poisoned in quite the way that they had. And so these women voluntarily submitting to the scientific tests, the women who had died, you know, donating the gift of knowledge from their bodies, we are all enriched by that sacrifice, because of the scientific knowledge that we’ve gained from it. And, you know, people working today in nuclear industries are protected. Because of that, because of these women.
Heather Warburton 26:22
Yeah, I don’t think you can overstate their impact of these truly remarkable women, it was such a pleasure to learn about them from your book. Hopefully, if anyone hasn’t yet read it. I know, it was a New York Times bestseller, but there may still be some people that haven’t read it, and that they can pick it up and meet these really extraordinary women. But like I said, at the very beginning of this interview, you couldn’t come on back a year ago or so because you were working on a new book. So let’s tell me a little bit about your new book, a little sneak preview.
Kate Moore 26:50
I can tell you, I can tell you a little bit about it. So it’s out in June 2021. So where are we at is about sort of six, seven months ago now. So I’m excited for people to read it. It’s called “The Woman They Could Not Silence” and and it’s a very different story. But I think I hope that people that enjoyed “Radium Girls” will also engage with this story. So it’s a very different era, certainly American Civil War. It focuses on one woman, and it starts with a simple question. What would happen if your husband could commit you to an insane asylum? Simply because you disagreed with him?
Heather Warburton 27:32
Oh, wow, that sounds like a really good one. We come back on the show again, and tell me once that new book is out, and I would love that would be
Kate Moore 27:41
I’d love to talk about it. It’s, it’s a fascinating and inspiring story. And, you know, I think a lot of women I hope a lot of people will be both shocked and inspired by this again, historical true story. And as a for me, I had a lot of similar elements to the radium girls. So I hope that people that enjoy that book will also come to “The Woman They Could Not Silence” on it and find something to enjoy and be outraged by and be inspired by as well.
Heather Warburton 28:13
If people want to follow you on social media or you on the social medias.
Kate Moore 28:18
I am on twitter at Kate books. I need to set up a Facebook page before the new book is out. But I haven’t done it yet. But yeah, at kate books, the Twitter is probably the best way or I’ve got a website at Kate-Moore.com.
Heather Warburton 28:31
Thank you so much for being here today. It’s been great talking to you.
Kate Moore 28:35
Likewise, thanks so much for having me on
Heather Warburton 28:37
To my listeners. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate you more than you could possibly know here. We strive to be a voice for the underrepresented the voice for the voiceless. So we appreciate when you join us and hear those voices. The future is yours to create. Go out there and create it
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