The best books about jobs for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Who am I?

I’m a writer interested in the odd areas where science and consumerism touch – particularly where this intersects with women workers. My debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium tells the history of radioactivity through the eyes of the people who made, bought, and sold products laced with radium in the 20th century. The follow-up title will explore the deadly element Uranium.


I wrote...

Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium

By Lucy Jane Santos,

Book cover of Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium

What is my book about?

Of all the radioactive elements discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, it was radium that became the focus of both public fascination and entrepreneurial zeal. Half Lives tells the fascinating, curious, sometimes macabre story of the element through its ascendance as a desirable item - a present for a queen, a prize in a treasure hunt, a glow-in- the-dark dance costume - to its role as a supposed cure-all in everyday twentieth-century life, when medical practitioners and business people (reputable and otherwise) devised ingenious ways of commodifying the new wonder element, and enthusiastic customers welcomed their radioactive wares into their homes.

The books I picked & why

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The Business of Beauty: Gender and the Body in Modern London

By Jessica P. Clark,

Book cover of The Business of Beauty: Gender and the Body in Modern London

Why this book?

Am starting with a tiny cheat as this book isn’t just about women – although it is about the beauty industry which is usually associated with women. What this book is -however – is an exploration about the history of beauty, consumption and gender in Victorian and Edwardian London. It is packed with stories of women beauty salon owners like Sarah “Madame” Rachel Leverson, Helen Rubinstein and Anna Ruppert. I’ve been working on a book that features Anna Rupert and Clark’s book has been an invaluable resource and a great in depth study on the subject.


Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light

By Liz Heinecke,

Book cover of Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light

Why this book?

This fantastic creative non fiction book tells the story of two unlikely friends – the dancer Loïe Fuller and the scientist Marie Curie. Through my research for Half Lives I have read a lot about both of these women – Marie Curie isolated the element and Loïe Fuller developed a fascination with it as she wanted to incorporate its glow in the dark properties into her stage costumes. Heinecke does an amazing job of bringing the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries alive with this book and shines a light on two fascinating women pioneers.


A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

By Patricia Fara,

Book cover of A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

Why this book?

This is a book about ground-breaking women and their impact on science, medicine and the First World War so could never be anything other than fascinating. But Fara is also a wonderful storyteller and in her hands these tales of resilience, courage and sheer determination zing with life.


Mrs. P's Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A-Z Map

By Sarah Hartley,

Book cover of Mrs. P's Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A-Z Map

Why this book?

This is the true story of Phyllis Pearsall who (amongst other adventures in a remarkable life that was also filled with personal tragedy) decided to chart and map the geographical districts of London – a project which eventually tuned into the A-Z map. Over a year Pearsall walked 23,000 London streets to achieve this remarkable feat and set up the Geographers’ Map Company. Pearsall is complex and flawed and Hartley wasn’t always able to separate fact from the fiction (Mrs P was a wonderful storyteller but sometimes contradicted herself). Ultimately Hartley concludes ‘If there is a scene, or a word, or a character, you believe to be too fantastical, it is likely they are real.’ Mrs P did have an extraordinary life.


The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

By Kate Moore,

Book cover of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

Why this book?

This is a heartbreaking narrative about hundreds of women factory workers in the 1920s. Their job was to apply glow in the dark paint (made with radium) to watch faces. And to increase efficiency and to reduce wastage they were instructed to lick the tip of their paintbrushes as a finer point meant neater work. But in doing so they also ingested massive amounts of the poisonous element. As they begun to suffer gruesome side effects the paint companies sought to discredit the women to protect their interests and their profits. This is a fascinating story about a battle for workers’ rights and in Moore’s hands sensitively told.


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