So Whats This Feminist Utopia I Keep Hearing About?

Idiot's Guide To Feminism in Iceland
20.7.2012
Words by Kári Tulinius
Many generations ago the population was struck by a plague that afflicted males solely, wiping them out and leaving only women. To avoid extinction, women developed parthenogenesis techniques, culminating in the ability to merge two eggs to form a foetus, ensuring the continuing existence of humanity.

What, Iceland is a 
country of only women?

Sorry, I thought you were asking about Whileaway, the feminist utopia created by science fiction writer Joanna Russ. Iceland may rank high on various measures of gender equality, but it is far from being a feminist Eden. For instance, the wage gap between men and women has proven very difficult to eradicate entirely. In a survey published last September by three major labour unions (VR, St.Rv. and SFR, if you must know), women made on average 24% less in wages than men. While some of that is explained by seniority, education and other factors, which lead to higher pay, that only lowers the gender gap percentage to 13%.

What? But you have a FEMALE prime minister!

It is true that Iceland has made great progress towards equality in the last few decades. Current Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is a perfect example. She was only the tenth woman ever to be elected to the Icelandic parliament. In 1978, when she gained her seat, there were only two others, a measly 5% of all MPs. But in the current parliament women make up about 40% of the total (the number has fluctuated depending on resignations and temporary absences).

So women are taking over? About time too.

That is not really on the horizon. While the newly elected bishop of the state church of Iceland is indeed a woman, and a woman candidate came second in this summer's election for the office of the Presidency (which has once previously been held by a woman, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, from 1980 to 1996), this may be a high-point. The leaders of the three major political parties other than Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir's Social Democratic Alliance are all male and the current president has retained his office. The present level of female political power may end up being a historical anomaly.

Historical anomaly? But what about all the strong Viking women of the past?

Even though the "Queen of Iceland" is a character in many works of medieval literature, notably the ‘Niebelungenlied,’ women have not historically had much power in Iceland. Men have governed single-handedly. By which I mean they ran the nation with one hand. The other being around their penis. To be fair, sometimes they took their non-governing hand off their penis to grope passing women. Which is to say that in Iceland women had it just as shitty as anywhere else throughout history.

So everything is just as awful in Iceland as anywhere else?

No, not really. The various gender equality rankings, such as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Development Programme, which Iceland scores so well on, do measure something real. Women in Iceland do have a better quality of life than women in most other countries in the world. Here is one example: In most societies, single mothers tend to have the hardest lives, and that is true of Iceland as well. However, being a single mother in Iceland brings very low social stigma, and there are sensible programmes in place to make single motherhood manageable. In fact, the first Icelandic female president was a single mother when elected. Good luck running for even a minor public office in the US as a single mother.

She wouldn't even get elected to the local school board. Go Iceland!

However, part of the relatively good quality of life for single mothers in Iceland is due to how close extended families tend to be, both in social and geographic terms. Most single mothers have parents, aunts, uncles and siblings take care of their kids, be it after school or for a week so they can go on a work trip. Single mothers without family connections, usually immigrant women, have it much worse. Other examples tell a similar story, but the gender wage gap shows no signs of disappearing and Iceland is still a while away from being Whileaway.

Man, why do you have to be such a downer. Just tell me more about Whileaway.

Sure! Whileaway has a number of similarities with Iceland, actually. For instance women are named for their mothers in a matronymic system, like people in Iceland are named for their fathers. Electricity is normally generated with steam turbines and hydroelectric dams and there is only one major urban centre. That is about it, however, for similarities. Whileaway women fight each other in duels for love, and have the technology to travel to other worlds. Oh, and Iceland is not a feminist utopia.

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