The Radium Girls and the Power of Women’s Anger

I prepared to go see the first fully-staged Connecticut production of “These Shining Lives” by reading The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by British author Kate Moore.

Moore, also an actress, said she was inspired to write The Radium Girls while directing two London performances of “These Shining Lives,” which I saw earlier this month at the Milford Arts Council in Connecticut.

From the Milford (Connecticut) Arts Council performance of These Shining Lives, which runs through Sunday, Feb. 17.

Written by award-winning American television writer and playwright Melanie Marnich, “These Shining Lives” tells the true story of four of Ottawa, Illinois, women who suffered the painful and deadly effects of radium exposure while painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watches and clocks in the early 1900s. It’s narrated by a young woman named Catherine Donohue, who like all the female workers painting dials at clock factories in Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut was told to use her lips to create a fine point at the end of her brush before dipping it in to the luminous green paint.

Lip, dip, paint. Lip, dip, paint. Lip, dip, paint.

Many of the radium girls suffered from large, grotesque tumors on their jaws. Eventually, their jawbones crumbled away.

From roughly 1917 to 1940, this was the song of sometimes thousands of nicknamed “radium girls”—most of them in their 20s—who lipped and dipped each time they painted a number, 1 through 12, on up to 150 watch faces a day. The women became irradiated from within, leading to broken bones, grapefruit-sized tumors, their teeth falling out, jaws breaking, immovable arms and legs, and spines collapsing. Many reported rolling over at night, catching a glimpse of themselves in their bedroom mirrors, and seeing—with horror—that their bodies glowed in the dark.

Even though the men who ran the factories knew that radium was dangerous, the women were told the paint was safe. Many complained of its gritty taste and worried about what they might be ingesting. But as one of the women matter-of-factly states in “These Shining Lives”: “You get used to it.”

Lyrically written, “Shining Lives” uses the stories of Catherine and co-workers Francis O’Connell, Charlotte Purcell and Pearl Payne to show not just the excruciating pain and disfigurement that countless radium girls like them suffered, but also the endless courage, tenacity and resilience they displayed as they fought for recompense, justice, and the establishment of new protections for future dial workers.

At the performance I attended, audience members laughed, disbelieving, when the company doctor blamed stress for the cause of Catherine’s lost teeth and debilitating leg pain. They then gasped when she was fired for becoming too sick to work.

Charlotte Purcell, whose left arm was amputated because of the effects of radium poisoning. Her story is featured in both “These Shining Lives” and The Radium Girls: The Dark Story Of America’s Shining Women.

The play skillfully uses both humor and horror to connect with its audience. But as powerful as it is, there are limits to the depth of story that a stage can tell.

From page 1 of The Radium Girls, Moore uses unapologetic, no-nonsense and often gruesome prose to vividly show the extent that working with radium, and being lied to about its dangers, affected not just the women, but their families, the baffled doctors who did their best to care for them, and the legal experts who fought for the justice they deserved.

Moore does nothing to whitewash what Catherine and the other girls experienced:

Her mouth, empty of teeth, empty of jawbone, empty of words, filled with blood, instead, until it spilled over her lips and down her stricken, shaken face. … [It was] a “painful and terrible death.” She was just twenty-four years old. (Ebook page 69)

… New bruises bloomed on her body, blood vessels bursting under her skin. Her mouth would not stop bleeding; pus oozed from her gums. Her bad leg was a constant source of pain. She couldn’t take it anymore; she became “delirious” and lost her mind. (Ebook page 195)

She suffered excruciating, constant pain that required continuous administration of narcotics. Her jawbone continued to fracture into ever-smaller fragments, each new break more painful than the last, and with the new breaks came a new development. Catherine started hemorrhaging from her jaw. She lost approximately one pint of blood each time. (Ebook page 521)

Too sick to travel to the courthouse hearing her case, radium girl Catherine Donohue literally gave evidence from her deathbed. “Wolfe” was Catherine’s maiden name and is mine, which is one of the things that made me want to know her story.

Part of my wanting to read Moore’s book, and see Marnich’s play, was to learn about the radium girls who worked in New England at the Waterbury Clock Factory. I had heard a little about Frances Splettstocher, the first Connecticut woman to die from working there with radium. She was followed by Mildred Cardow and Mary Damulis. All were in their early 20s.

Between 1926 and 1936, the Waterbury Clock Company issued more than $90,000 in medical settlements to radium girls. Yet Waterbury was barely mentioned by Marnich, and only tangentially referred to by Moore. A little research led me to a 2002 Waterbury Observer article that perhaps explains why. While the New Jersey and Illinois dial painters received extensive media coverage—the impact of which Moore deftly shows—no news articles were ever written about the Waterbury women. Their cases were all settled privately, out of court, with no reports made to state or federal agencies.

The old Waterbury Clock Factory in Connecticut—the only New England location where radium girls worked.

Unlike the radium girls in Illinois and New Jersey, the Waterbury dial painters had no champions.

“No one in Connecticut with power was willing to help those women,” said Claudia Clark, author of Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, in the Observer article. “The state was so ant-labor and pro-business. Even the women’s organizations wouldn’t help. It would have been great if someone with power and authority got involved, but it didn’t happen.”

As Moore explains, the radium girls’ cases that went public played a significant role in the establishment of new, strict federal occupational health and safety guidelines for those working with radium and other hazardous materials. They also led to Congress passing a law to give workers the right to receive compensation for occupational illnesses.

Click here to listen to a fascinating Connecticut Public Radio interview with Moore and other guests, including a relative of Mae Keane, the last living radium girl from Waterbury, Connecticut, who passed away at 107 years old in 2014. Despite working as a dial painter for just a few months, she lost all of her teeth by the time she was 30 and battled cancer several times during her life.

Yet the blatant lies these women were told; the bosses who stayed silent despite what they knew—unacceptable. Shameful. And in many ways, as viscerally painful as what these women went through. I’m nauseous as I think about it and type these words.

Moore’s The Radium Girls is a must-read not just for those interested in history, but for those who believe in equal rights and justice. Yes, this past century has seen advancements in gender, workplace, healthcare and economic rights. But so many more are needed. There are also too many similarities between the battles Catherine Donohue and other radium girls fought with those still going on today.

Eager to learn more about how women’s anger about injustices have led to needed change, I’ve put Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger at the top of my #TBR nonfiction pile. I saw Traister interviewed by Fareed Zakaria this past Sunday morning on CNN, and her insights and expertise grabbed me.

Published last year, Good and Mad examines the contemporary and historical impact of women’s anger on American society. According to the book description, Traister shows that while women’s fury over injustices has long been repressed and dismissed, it has also been one of the most powerful forces in U.S. politics and culture.

As an often-angry feminist who has been told that I’m crazy, irrational, and wasting my time, I can’t wait to crack the cover.

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