Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”

My father’s voice fills the hug-like darkness as he tells us stories. He puts my name and my sister’s in the story—”Emily and Alaina were walking in the hundred-acre woods, and who should they meet but Winnie the Pooh and Piglet.” The numbers on his watch face glow green. 

My father’s stories came from A. A. Milne, who crafted a compassionate paradise as an escape from “shell-shock” received in the trenches of WWI. Incidentally, that’s where luminescent watch dials come from, too. The coordination of thousands of men surging from the disemboweled earth requires precise timing. 

The glow came from radium mixed with zinc sulfide. They called it “Luminite,” and they had it painted on the dials in factories in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. Young women like Grace Fryer and Quinta and Albina Maggia were hired for their nimble fingers. I notice the sisters in this story because I have a little sister. I can picture the sisters, walking together to the work room with its tall window and long work benches, soft conversations buzzing, not unlike a Geiger counter in the big room with it’s tall windows. Grace Fryer’s little sister got a job at the factory. She was fired for talking too much; it saved her from sharing her sister’s fate. 

The company was the United States Radium Corporation. They told the dial painters that it was safe to “point” the brush with their lips. A quick motion—dab the brush to the the center of a kiss, drawing the hairs to a fine point. 

Lip, Luminite, dial. 

It was faster this way than using water or some other method of moistening the brush. Time is money. And it was cheaper. 

Eventually, they proved that the sickness that befell dial painters—that caused their teeth to fall out and their jaws to crumble—came from radium. 

Quinta and Albina Maggia’s parents came from Italy. The sisters worked at United States Radium because the pay was good and they could work together. You could make about five cents a dial. In 1920, a loaf of bread cost seven cents. A one-ounce bottle of Radithor Certified Radioactive Water cost a dollar. It was sold as a health tonic. Radior Cosmetics promised an “ever-flowing fountain of youth and beauty.” They called it “Radium,” “Luminite,” or “Undark.” It’s commonly produced as a byproduct of uranium. 

The radium that killed Grace, Quinta, and Albina came from uranium that came from Paradox Valley in Colorado. Incidentally, I come from Colorado, too. Paradox Valley is not very far from where my sister attends university. 

The name “uranium” comes from Uranus, the Greco-Roman god of the sky, who lay with Gaia, Mother Earth, who bore Saturn. It’s a familiar myth—the father spreads himself over the bountiful mother and life is brought forth. All things come from the mother; it’s the same in many myths. Except in the Bible. In that version of The Beginning, the mother of nations is brought out of the man who is brought out of the earth. So Eve is a bit like radium—taken from the father, who was taken from the earth. A byproduct. Twice derivative. 

To be derived is not negative. Everything is derived. My father’s stories are derivative of A. A. Milne’s, and, in turn, Milne derived his bear, or at least the bear’s name, from a real rescued cub named Winnie. 

The Radium Girls, as they are known, have a legacy, too. Many of the protections for workers of dangerous jobs that can cause occupational illnesses derive from their story and the lawsuit they brought against United States Radium. It was settled out of court.

The lawsuit led by Grace Fryer and other women who fought even as their bones dissolved set precedent. All the articles on the Radium Girls end with that. The Atlantic even notes that  the “cautionary tales” of the shining women taught the Manhattan Project scientists to protect themselves as they developed the atom bomb. It doesn’t seem like a fair price for the more than 50 women who, by 1927, had been devoured by greed and impossible “constant” light. Grace Fryer was a suffragette. What if she wanted some other legacy than a lawsuit, glowing bones, and a tragic death at 35? She was given no other choice than to have her significance derive from the radium that poisoned her.  

And her light will go out. The half-life of radium is 1,600 years. So Grace Fryer’s bones will glow until 3520, give or take a few years. 

What is the half-life of a woman’s rage? Would another kind of legacy have lasted longer, glowed more brightly?

An advertisement for Undark Paint, produced by Radium Luminous Material Corporation, proudly declares, “Twenty-three years ago radium was unknown. Today, thanks to constant laboratory work, the power of this most unusual of elements is at your disposal.” The dial painter in the advertisement is a man.

I cannot help but think that 23 years ago, on November 21, 1997, I was unknown. I would be born four days later. I don’t know what my half-life will be. 

Women who fight for justice are noble, of course. There’s another Bible story about a woman who demands to see a judge. She pounds her fist on his door. She interrupts his life, disrupts, disturbs. At last, he says, “I don’t even revere God, much less his commands, but I will get this woman justice so she will leave me alone.” 

What would happen if we persisted beyond accepting a brilliant legacy of anger and tragedy? What if our brightest women could be known for something other than martyrdom, scandal, and fierce opposition? Such a legacy seems like an out-of-court-settlement kind of conciliation. We’ll know we’ve won when our little sisters can be celebrated for achievements other than ferocity.

2 Comments

  1. Kyric Koning

    Even if the victory is different than imagined, even if it never comes at all, some things are worth fighting for. The past will bring us to the future. That is something worth remembering too. A fine collection of past and present, those families that came before and our own.

    Reply
  2. Geneva Langeland

    Extremely powerful. And “What is the half-life of a woman’s rage?” gave me goosebumps!

    Reply

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