Radium Girls, by Moore

Sunday January 2, 2022

I like that Moore writes with purpose; all her books expose injustice against and give voice to women (with the possible exception of the Felix the Railway Cat series; I'm not sure about those). The Radium Girls stays readable over nearly 500 pages, conveying history that feels relevant to current issues of business, law, rights, and risks.

Capitalism can be stupid and mean: Several businesspeople seem Trump-like in their disregard for ethics in the pursuit of profit. It's hard to take a libertarian point of view with externalities like these. And radium dials at least look cool, but many radium businesses sold absolute snake oil. I noticed today that a company will sell you marijuana gummies for weight loss. Maybe not much has changed.

Ignorance and geography: It was much harder, it seemed, to find a competent doctor or lawyer in small-town Illinois, compared to the New York metropolitan area. It seems there was more religiosity in the middle west as well. It also struck me as strange that terminal patients were generally not told that they were terminal. Is that still the case? Is ignorance really better in such cases?

Weaponizing “experts”: As with radium, so with cigarettes and opioids and climate change and on and on... The pursuit of knowledge pushed behind debate-club he-said/she-said and outright lies.

"But if you looked a little closer at all those positive publications, there was a common denominator: the researchers, on the whole, worked for radium firms. As radium was such a rare and mysterious element, its commercial exploiters in fact controlled, to an almost monopolizing extent, its image and most of the knowledge about it. Many firms had their own radium-themed journals, which were distributed free to doctors, all full of optimistic research. The firms that profited from radium medicine were the primary producers and publishers of the positive literature." (page 49)

Dangers with delayed effects: Radium took years, usually, to have negative effects on the radium dial painters. What risks do we currently not know or underestimate?

Gender and class: Moore highlights inequities in societal attention and care. For example, "It seemed wealthy consumers were much more worthy of protection than working-class girls..." (page 273) It reminds me of the 21st-century popularization of Alice Neel, who similarly focused on working people and "the female gaze." How far is there still to go?

The legal system: The tales of slow and capricious legal processes, out-of-court settlements, rhetoric over reality, the influence of wealth, and general nonsense... The 1920s and 30s sound very much like the present.