I’m re-reading a post from 2017, a review of Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto. I’m utterly amazed by this quote from the novel:
“She didn’t hate being a wife any more than she hated being a mother. What she hated was the way that wife, mother, and photographer created an unsolvable equation. What she hated was trying to solve the mathematics of her various roles.”
So many articles in mothers and working women’s magazine are about exactly this: the unsolvable equation of working and being a parent. To put it in another way, so many articles in the media are about work/life balance–how to achieve it. This novel, about famous female photographers is about the very same thing.
Kate Moore carefully documents many of the of dial workers’ stories who worked in Orange, NJ and Ottawa, IL. In doing so, she preserves an important part of women’s history, industrial history, and American history.
Lured by the glamour and high pay, these girls enjoyed their jobs until, one by one, they began getting sick. No laws protected workers from the occupational hazards of radium at this time. Moore makes much of the fact that these women were unwitting pioneers who paved the way for safer conditions in all workplaces. The product these women worked with, a radium paste, was called Undark. In the twenties, when glowing watch dials for the military were in hot demand, not much was known about the dangers of working with radium. By the late 1920’s, the companies knew radium was harmful but still did nothing to protect its dial workers who lip-pointed. They would put the radium-tainted brush directly into their mouths to give the brush a point. This practice was encourage for quick production of the dials. Radium’s effects were devastating. Some women died quickly but some suffered a slow and painful death. Some of these women, notably Catherine Donohue, fought courageously to win a lawsuit against the companies that employed them. Though the payouts were small, they changes working conditions for future employees. The dial worker’s cases led to the formation of OSHA. They also continued to help scientists by participating in tests at Argonne Laboratory. Though other works on this topic focus on the physicians and scientists, Moore’s work puts a human face to this tragedy by focusing on the women themselves.