Friday, October 25, 2019

Author Talk with Kate Moore (The Radium Girls)

The group of women known as the Radium Girls remained voiceless and largely forgotten until one author made it her mission to reach back through the years and let their voices be heard.

Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls
Kate Moore
I was lucky enough to be in the crowd when Kate Moore discussed her book, The Radium Girls, and the emotional journey of writing it with fans at the Spencer Road branch of the county library system in St. Peters, Missouri, on Oct. 12.

"My mission in writing this book was to ensure that these important special girls were not forgotten. And it just means the world to have you come out to hear about them because I know you'll remember their tale ... . We're all collectively remembering them tonight and that's really special to me," she said.

Moore, an English writer, actress and director who currently lives in London, began the evening with a reading from the book. "I wanted the women to feel like they could be your friends, I wanted you to connect with them, to walk in step with them. And so you'll see when I do the reading, I've written it as what I call narrative nonfiction, so everything in the book is true, all the dialogue that you read comes from court records and other documents, but it hopefully reads like a novel so that you can get swept up in the story and it doesn't feel dry and dusty and distant, it feels immediate and tragic and heartbreaking, and you feel for these real people."

Moore read a passage introducing Katherine Schaub, one of the young girls who began working in a New Jersey factory in early 1917 where she used radium paint to create luminous watch dials. The job was well-paid and considered glamorous thanks to association with the expensive and trendy radium the girls and women worked with. The women were instructed to place their paint brushes between their lips to tame the bristles into a neat point for fine work, which caused them to ingest small amounts of radium again and again.

"That seemingly innocent and innocuous act of putting a paintbrush laden with a radioactive radium paint between her lips would lead Katherine Schaub down a path she could never have anticipated following," Moore said after the reading. "It led her down a path where she became a champion for workers' rights. It led her down a path where she became an unwitting scientific pioneer, a pioneer who taught us so much, so much that has protected generations of people for decades after Katherine lived and died. She left us an extraordinary legacy, as did all the Radium Girls."

The Radium Girls where mostly teenagers, many between 14-16 years old, and records show some as young as 11. They were typically the children of poor immigrants, most of whom had no prospects for a job that would pay as well as the dial-painting factory, she said.

"They earned more than three times the average factory-floor worker. So in a time before women even had the vote, these young girls were earning vast amounts of money, sometimes more than their fathers or their husbands, if they had them. It was an incredibly well-paid profession," Moore said.

It was also appealing to the young women for other reasons. It was considered an artistic trade, and as such it held a bit of prestige. They also worked with others their age, often their friends and relatives, which created a lively, friendly atmosphere.

"One of the tragedies for me is that when the company expressed that need for more workers, the women who were lucky enough to already have a job promoted it to those closest to them, their sisters, cousins, best friends. ... And for me, this is so tragic because when what happened to the Radium Girls then happened, it wasn't just one daughter in a family who was affected, but two or three or four," Moore said.

"But at the time, the women thought it was fabulous that they all worked together. You can imagine the fun that they had, imagine working with your classmates all the time. It was a really jolly, brilliant place to work," she said. In her research, Moore discovered photographs in the archives of the women at company picnics, or eating ice cream as they dangled their legs off the side of a bridge running over a brook behind the studio. (Note: while I couldn't find that exact photograph online, several others can be found on Google of the women who worked in these factories.)

Radium itself was trendy, making the job all the more appealing and the reach of its dangers all the greater for everyone. It showed up in a wide array of products, from cosmetics to undergarments.

"They put it in chocolate and butter and milk and toothpaste, and the rich and famous actually drank radioactive water as a health tonic. The recommended dose was five to seven glasses a day. So the girls thought they were extremely lucky to be working with this one element," Moore said.

Then the women began getting strange ailments in their bones, many times long after they no longer worked in the factories. The ailments were varied, but all were unusual cases the doctors couldn't easily diagnose. "When they studied the women later, they found that their bones were honeycombed and moth-eaten in appearance. They literally had holes in them, holes that had been drilled there by the radium while the women were still alive," she said. "And when they went to the doctors, the doctors, completely perplexed by this medical mystery, simply dismissed the pain that they've reported and sent them home with aspirin. Aspirin, when the radium is drilling holes in their bones. It's almost impossible to imagine their agony."

It was the friendships and family ties that kept women in touch after leaving the factory, allowing them to notice the connection between their ailments and the radium factories. "It was the women who made those connections, not the medical authorities," Moore said.

"And in fact, for me, one of the most shocking things about this history is that even though dozens of young women had died of their radium poisoning from their work, no medical authority took note until the first male employee of the radium firm died. He was the first person to be autopsied. He was the first person to be examined because they had to know what had killed him. Only after that did the medical authorities take note and begin investigating what was happening in these dial-painting studios."

But of course even then, the companies refused to admit culpability, doing everything they could to silence or discredit the women. "No matter what the companies threw at them, they kept on fighting. They are absolutely extraordinary; they showed such dignity, such courage, such strength," she said. And the women fought those companies in court while suffering, and dying, from radium poisoning.

"I think the Radium Girls are an example to us all. They're an example of what you can achieve if you band together with like-minded individuals, and you fight for what you believe in. No matter what that is. They're an example that no matter how powerless you feel, no matter how powerless people try to make you feel, you do have power, and you can make a difference. And they haven't just left us this legacy as agents of social change, they've left us a legacy in safety and in science. Because what happens after the First World War? The Second World War. And the Manhattan Project, where thousands of workers are using radioactive materials that we know nothing about, they're brand new," Moore said.

"There are entries in the diary of the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, talking about the Radium Girls, being literally haunted by these women and what they suffered and sacrificed and insisting that his workers would be protected. And so because of the Radium Girls, those workers on the Manhattan Project were protected. There were safety standards put in place, based on the bodies of these women, and it protected those workers.

"But that legacy goes beyond the Second World War into the 1950s and '60s when there's a nuclear arms race happening and above-ground atomic tests are going on, and radioactive fallout is exploding across the entire world. Radioactive isotopes getting into the human food chain. Is this safe? Is it safe for our bodies to have any radioactive isotopes in them? Well, that's what we needed to find out, and how could we find that out? By studying the Radium Girls. These women volunteered [for] the scientific studies. Those who had died, their bodies gave up their secrets after death. Those women still living submitted to painful, intrusive tests, bone marrow biopsies, blood tests, scans, so that we could learn what was safe, and what was not. And partly thanks to those studies on the Radium Girls, President Kennedy signed the Limited [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which prohibited those above-ground atomic tests, and protected every single one of us.

"An extraordinary legacy. And yet so many people don't know their name," she said.

So, how did an English author even hear about the Radium Girls when most Americans hadn't?

She was a director looking for a play and googled "great plays for women" when she discovered "These Shining Lives" by Melanie Marnich, about four dial-painters in an Ottawa, Illinois factory. "The moment I found that play, I connected with it. This story of strong women fighting for their rights was universal in its power," Moore told the audience.

She pitched it to the theater company she worked with in London, and they were on board. Unfortunately, she was initially denied rights to the play. Unwilling to take no for an answer, she pleaded her case with an email outlining her vision for the play and was finally given the go-ahead.

She began research, aiming to respect the legacy and lives of the real people on whom it was based. But her research found little about the women themselves. "For me the women were the most important part of the story, because it was these individual heroines that had made such a difference, and I thought they deserved a book that celebrated them and honored them and observed their tragedies and their triumphs, and mourned with them and suffered with them and celebrated with them. That's the book I thought should exist, and it didn't." So she decided to write it herself.

On a research trip, she discovered letters, diaries and court testimonies. "The Radium Girls had left their own account in their own words of what had happened to them," Moore said. "Those voices had been there in the archives, all along, just waiting for someone to listen. And I have used those records and their voices inter-stitched, intertwined within the narrative that I've written.

"So I hope if you read the book, it is to hear from the Radium Girls themselves. I feel very strongly that this is their story. My name might be on the cover, but it's them that you'll hear in this book, those first-person accounts are scattered throughout, because who knows better what it was like to be a Radium Girl than the Radium Girls themselves?"

It was in a museum in Utica, Illinois, not far from Ottawa, that she found some true treasures gifted down to her from decades past. She had heard this museum had material about the Radium Girls, but discovered all they had on display was a book on the legal legacy of the cases, which she already knew about, and a single photo of the girls in their workplace. A little gentle pushing gained her access to a back room where she was free to look for more, though no one at the museum knew of anything of importance in storage.

In that back room she found a folder holding letters between Catherine Donohue, one of the dial-painters who sued her Illinois factory, and a friend. Moore had directed an actress portraying Donohue in a play, and now she held the very paper Donohue had touched in her own hands. "I could trace with my finger the indentation her pencil had made on the paper as she signed her name. It was just extraordinary to feel that connection with her to something she had viscerally touched and experienced as well.

"And it was so amazing as well just to read her words, to read how lonely she felt to be sent away to hospital for treatment, to miss her family and her friends, her husband, her children. She poured her heart out in these letters. And it was just so emotionally moving, I literally was reading them with tears streaming down my face," Moore recalled.

She also met with many of the women's surviving family members as she conducted research to get a feel for who the women really were. "The book is actually dedicated to the dial painters, and those who loved them. And what I wanted to do in the book as well was not just focus on the women but on those people that they had adored and who cherished them. The husbands who had to bury their wives, the children who had to grow up without their mothers, and the parents who had to bury sometimes not only one daughter, but two or three or four," she said.

After the book was published in 2017, she was in the U.S. on a promotional tour. She was at the site of a former dial-painting factory in Orange, New Jersey, to give an interview about the book when her publisher called to say it was a New York Times bestseller.

"I was there on the site of the dial-painting studio where these women had lived and died and fought for justice," Moore said. "I felt them with me in that moment, in that moment of knowing what the book had done, how many people it had reached. And that was so important because I feel so strongly that the success the book has achieved is not my success, it is their success.

"And it means so much to me that it is a success in America, because in my lifetime these women were shunned and silenced and discredited, they were called liars and cheats and frauds. And yet now, America is celebrating them and honoring them. So I just want to finish by saying thank you for listening to them."

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