Thursday, March 1, 2018

Women’s History Month: Stories of Tragedy and Survival

Ordinarily, when I think of Women’s History Month, I tend to look at the stories of great women whose accomplishments were often overlooked during their lives, or those whose achievements were noteworthy because of the obstacles overcome along the way.

Recently, however, when researching Illinois history sites, I stumbled across a story of women whose health was damaged while they worked diligently to earn a living for their families in the 1920s. The article was called The Radium Girls: An Illinois Tragedy. I’d never heard of the women who died of radium poisoning years after working at a radium dial company, painting dials with a special mix that glowed in the dark. The article suggests perhaps thousands of people, mostly women, died from the poisoning. Kate Moore wrote a book called The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (2017) and discusses women who worked at similar companies in other states as well.

Consider another great tragedy that affected a large number of people in 1911, most of them young, female immigrants from Europe. This disaster is well known, and the whole horrible story can be found on the OSHA website. The factory was in the garment district of New York City, the workers located on upper floors of a building with only one fire escape, many locked doors, and a firefighting crew whose ladders were too short to reach the fire.

You can search for “triangle shirtwaist factory fire” on Amazon to see how many books have been written about this fire over the years.

To come back to Illinois history, is there anyone who does not know the tragic story of Richard Speck and the 1966 torture, rape, and murder of eight student nurses at a hospital in Chicago? History.com and other sites have the story, and numerous books have been written about the tragedy and the murderer.

The site history.com is a great resource for those who love history. This is where I read more of the details of the army and navy nurses taken prisoner in the Philippines when the Japanese took over the islands in 1942 (the Angels of Bataan). Although the numbers vary according to different sources, approximately 80 nurses were taken prisoner and held until 1945. In spite of disease, near starvation, and unfathomable fear, these strong women kept each other alive. All returned home, although some never fully recovered physically or emotionally from the trauma.

Again, several books have been written about these nurses, both non-fiction and fiction. I first learned of this story from my mom who in 2014 wanted to read a recently released book for young readers called Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific. As a civilian nurse (pregnant with me at the time) working in an Army Hospital in 1942, she knew many of the nurses who’d gone overseas, but her knowledge of what they went through was limited to what she’d read in newspapers at the time.

Non-fiction writers take note. Fiction writers as well. Exploring history can reveal the tales that shock readers, teach what went wrong in the past, and help implement change. We could spend years discussing all the sad events that have faced women throughout history, but learning the stories help put today’s benefits and today’s disasters in perspective. Doing the research and writing about these events continue to educate long after the events have occurred.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

9 comments :

  1. What a fabulous post, Pat! It reminds us that heroes need not be on the front lines of a battle or marching in the streets with shouts of protest and banners held high. Those who stay at home to raise children and tend to domestic (often mundane) responsibilities have trained and encouraged youngsters who became powerful world leaders, cutting-edge scientists, life-saving physicians, inventors whose works brought change and hope to the lives of many. Throughout history, women have often carried the torch for the human race, marching forth wherever they were needed to help make the world a better place for all——and as you note, too often paying the price for their willingness to perform the jobs they are called on to do.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. We could do a whole year (or more) on women's history and not run out of stories to tell. Note the additional suggestions in the comment from Anonymous.

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  2. The radium women reminded me of the phossy jaw victims.
    Elizabeth M. Norman wrote We Band of Angels about Bataan.
    You might like Code Girls by Lisa Mundy about the 10,000 women cryptologists in WWII.

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    1. I've heard of the Code Girls and will put that book on my To Be Read list. Norman's book is excellent. I'd hate to think these brave women would ever be forgotten. (And now I have to go look up the "phossy jaw victims." :D

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  3. Terrific look at bits of history, Pat. I knew about the fire in NY that ws such a huge tragedy, but not the radium story. Will have to check it out. I am always interested in stories that celebrate strong women.

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    1. I discovered yesterday that a local bookstore has Kate Moore coming to my town to talk about her book The Radium Girls. It's always interesting to learn how an author learned of a topic and why they chose to write the book.

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  4. I was familiar with the shirtwaist factory fire, but not the radium girls. There were also people out west during the nuclear tests that were exposed to radiation. Aside from nonfiction, we have the ability as fiction writers to bring these stories to life in ways that carry significant impact. Taking it away from the academic and making it personal sometimes reaches a wider audience.

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    1. I noticed that much is known about the individual women who suffered the radium poisoning, but very little about the young women killed in the shirtwaist fire. A novel could create lives and personalities for some of the girls that would make the story of the fire disaster feel more real and, as you said, more personal.

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  5. Excellent post, Pat. It reminds me of an author talk I went to by the author of "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II." Though these women weren't in physical danger, they didn't know they were helping to build the atomic bomb.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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