Women Vaccinating Against Smallpox in Afghanistan
Some of the women were just out of college, energized by President John F. Kennedy's challenge to make the world a better place. Some, who had never traveled outside the country, wanted to see the world. Some had to persuade parents who were dumbfounded at their daughters' decision to join the Peace Corps. They were idealistic, naïve, and adventurous.
It was 1969. The women were members of an all-female team of Peace Corps volunteers sent to Afghanistan as part of the World Health Organization's campaign to eradicate the scourge of smallpox. They would struggle with the challenges of vaccinating in high mountains and vast deserts, where many of the Afghan women and girls could not be seen, much less vaccinated, by men outside their families. The Peace Corps women joined teams of male Afghan vaccinators stationed in the Hindu Kush mountains north of Kabul and in the southern part of the country, traveling by Jeep and on foot, going house to house, village by village. "We walked in on weddings, on funerals . . . whatever was going on, and vaccinated everyone," one of them said.
The volunteers stayed overnight in local family compounds, eating whatever their hosts offered. They wrestled with homesickness, illness, and culture shock; enjoyed new music, food, and friends; and explored the differences and universalities of women's lives. In some of the villages, they were the first Westerners the residents had ever met.
Years later, after a group reunion, one of the former volunteers, Jill Vickers, set out to make a documentary about their experiences. The result was a film, Once in Afghanistan (2008), and a wealth of material—letters home, photographs, and diaries— that the women had collected to help her tell their story.
That's where matters stood in January 2011, when Harvard history professor Erez Manela—who was studying the global campaign to end smallpox—sent an e-mail asking if we might be interested in the papers of a group of women who'd been Peace Corps volunteers in the late 1960s. We most definitely were: One of the library's strategic goals is to increase our holdings focusing on American women acting globally.
Manela put us in touch with Kristina Engstrom, the training director for the Afghanistan project, who recognized the historical value of the material the women had gathered and was taking the lead in finding it a suitable home. Several libraries were in the running.
Engstrom, Vickers, and other former Peace Corps volunteers visited the library in February 2011 and listened carefully to our descriptions of who we are, what we do, and why. That their saved material—the tangible, personal record of their part in this worldwide effort—would find a good home at the Schlesinger and good company among our dozens of collections documenting women's activism in the United States and abroad over a century and a half was compelling to them.
We were as moved by what these women had done as they were by what we do, which is to keep stories like theirs and their part in the long history of women's work for peace, justice, and human rights alive and available to researchers, who will fit it into the puzzle of their scholarship.
Last November, when we featured Once in Afghanistan in the library's film series, Engstrom, Vickers, and several other women who appeared in the film were present to answer questions from a large audience that included former Peace Corps volunteers who had worked in other parts of the world, young Afghans far from home, and students. On behalf of all the women who had been part of the project in Afghanistan in 1969–1970, Engstrom presented to the library the saved material of several volunteers, the beginnings of a larger collection to come. More has already arrived.
The word is out, and additional letters, diaries, and photos are on the way to help tell the story of these American women who acted globally 40 years ago as part of the successful effort to stamp out smallpox in an Afghanistan not yet ravaged by decades of violence.