Is Iceland really the utopia of equality we dream of?

In October 1975, 90% of Icelandic women took the day off. In this edited extract of her new book, Catherine Mayer considers the legacy of that action

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By Catherine Mayer on

There’s no sodium glare, no urban sprawl to mark the transition from sea to land, just a strip of lights like crystals on jewellers’ velvet. At night the descent towards Keflavik International Airport becomes a trial of faith. Even as wheels meet tarmac, the scene scudding past the windows remains unfathomable, a bleak, black lavascape against a charcoal sky.

The main island and its archipelagos could fit with ample room to spare inside the borders of my birthplace, the US state of Wisconsin; and Iceland’s population, at 332,156, is about half the size of Milwaukee ’s and markedly more homogenous. Yet this pinprick on the globe has produced towering women, including the world’s first female president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first openly gay Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, whose government steadied Iceland after the financial crash, and the world’s most gloriously idiosyncratic singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir. A female bishop, Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, heads the Church of Iceland and feminist theology is studied at Icelandic universities. Iceland ranks as the world’s most gender equal society. It is also the world’s most peaceful country.

Were its 50-foot women the architects of that peaceable equality or its outcome? In 1975, the women of Iceland downed tools for the day. Why, and what did their action achieve?

This pinprick on the globe has produced towering women, including the world’s first female president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first openly gay Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and the world’s most gloriously idiosyncratic singer Björk Guðmundsdótti



Vigdís Finnbogadóttir may never have become President if it hadn’t happened. She pushed through the crowds with her mother and three-year-old daughter. A radical women’s group called the Red Stockings had originally proposed a women’s one-day strike. After other groups came on board, retitled the event and worked to win over employers and trades unions to the plan, the "Women’s Day Off" gained astonishingly wide support.

On October 24,1975, the women of Iceland walked out of their jobs and left their unpaid caring duties.

The crowds converged on Reykjavík and packed into Austurvöllur Square. Autumn can be bitter, but fate delivered crisp air and sunshine. Ninety per cent of Icelandic women participated.

Some men whinged at the prospect. After the Day Off, the whingeing stopped. Everyone had seen how much women contributed, in every sphere of activity. Even the male-dominated crews of the fishing fleets had been impacted as the women on board, mostly cooks, downed tools. Without women, everything ground to a halt.

The realisation kicked off a process of change. The Church of Iceland could have ordained women since 1911 but had not done so. The first ordinations took place after the Women’s Day Off. Five years later, Finnbogadóttir became President and the biggest Icelandic women’s party, Kvennalistinn – the Women’s List – formed in 1983 to turn the spirit of the Day Off into practicable policy proposals. The new party won more than 10 per cent of the vote and seats in theIcelandic parliament and immediately exerted an influence out of proportion to its size, applying a gendered lens to all debates and not just areas reductively labelled ‘women’s issues’. 

In 1999 the Women’s List merged with other parties that had enshrined its core values and adopted quotas to ensure substantial female representation in their ranks, creating the Social Democratic Alliance. The heritage of the Women’s Day Off and the women’s party seemed embedded in the Icelandic system. The only major party not to adopt voluntary quotas was the centre-right Independence Party. The female membership of parliament remained steady at around 40 per cent.

Elections in October 2016 lifted that proportion further, to 47 per cent. Even so, the result doesn’t appear likely to speed Icelandic progress on gender equality. No party came close to a majority and three attempts to form a coalition, led by three different parties, ended in failure. Finally, in January 2017, a fourth round of negotiations produced a coalition helmed by the centre-right Independence party and including two smaller parties, the right-wing Reform party and centre-right Bright Future.

One party made big strides at the election. The Pirate Party tripled its vote share to 14.5 per cent. The party’s instincts are post-ideological, post-feminist. Founded in Sweden in 2006 by Rick Falkvinge, a computer engineer campaigning to legalise file sharing, and active across the Nordic countries and in Germany, it aims to recast intellectual property – books and music, for example – as public property, and, in pushing to distribute it for free, instead risks pandering to the corporate giants of Silicon Valley that generate revenue off the back of the supposedly free content while its creators get little or nothing. Like Silicon Valley, Pirate representation often skews male. When Germany’s Pirate Party attracted criticism for its demographics, its female political director, Marina Weisband, appeared at a press conference to put a countervailing position. “We don’t keep track of our members’ gender,” Weisband said. “We believe true equality starts when we stop counting women.”

In Iceland, it remains to be seen whether the country’s traditions of gender equality can fashion a more female-friendly version of her party. This much is certain: it is far too soon for Iceland to stop counting women. Its female citizens earn between 14 and 18 per cent less than their male coun- terparts and in October 2016 they took to the streets for another Day Off to protest that disparity. The biggest single reason that the gender pay gap persists is that the labour market remains heavily gender segregated. Low- skilled ‘women’s work’ is paid at substantially lower rates than equivalent jobs held by men. Well over 90 per cent of truck drivers are men; similar proportions of jobs in the caregiving sector are held by women. Fishing and aluminium smelting remain the province of men.

Iceland isn’t yet Equalia. But a big battle has been won. ‘It is not now questioned “Can a woman do this or that?” It’s not something that you ask, like it was before,’ says Director of the Women’s History Archives, Auður Styrkársdóttir. ‘Because Icelandic women have proven that we can do anything. It has become part of reality.’



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