From Iceland — The Optimist: First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, On Her New Book, Writing, And Gender Equality

The Optimist: First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, On Her New Book, Writing, And Gender Equality

Published March 3, 2022

The Optimist: First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, On Her New Book, Writing, And Gender Equality
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Baldur Kristjáns

Eliza Reid, the Canadian-born journalist and writer who ended up First Lady of Iceland after her husband, historian Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, was elected President in 2016, is probably the most approachable person in such a high office that you’ll ever meet. Those who knew her “back when,” this own reporter included, can attest that she’s still in many ways the same that she’s always been: whip smart, funny, gregarious, laid back, and not shy to talk about her vulnerabilities.

But being First Lady obviously changes you in some ways, whether you want it to or not. You’re not an elected official, but bear much of the responsibility that a head of state might, in the sense that you also represent your country to the world at large. You’re placed in a position of privilege that most people will never experience. For some, that privilege can alienate them from others; for Eliza, it prompted her to seek out the stories of ordinary women in Iceland from a diversity of backgrounds, and present them in her latest book, Secrets Of The Sprakkar.

It’s hard to overstate what a page-turner this book is. Stories that are at times touching, hilarious, and harrowing, interspersed with Eliza’s candid recounting of moments in her own life, and gently woven in with tales of some of the most famous women in Icelandic history, Secrets Of The Sprakkar is more than a book to her; it’s a mission, sprung from a familiar source.

Some baked, some wrote

“To be honest, there’s a pragmatic answer to this,” she tells me, when I ask her what prompted her to write this book. “When the pandemic hit, everything shifted. Our routines shifted, and that often gives us pause to think, even though we don’t intentionally go about doing that.

“For me, when the pandemic hit, the Icelandic Writers Retreat that I run was cancelled at the last minute. There are far fewer things to do as First Lady; far fewer conferences to open and events to happen. Somehow life kind of shifted, which meant that I was spending more time walking with my kids to and from school. And when you’re walking, you get all these ideas. I do have a writing and journalism background, but I didn’t walk with a book in my belly, as we say in Iceland so often.

“One time when I was walking, it was around the time that [first female president] Vigdís Finnbogadóttir turned 90. We were all talking about it here, and one thought led to another. The idea was that here in Iceland, we talk about Vigdís’ achievement as the first female president, but really, to outsiders, these achievements aren’t known all that well.

“Somehow I had that spark of an idea that in a sense I’m an outsider; I’m an immigrant to the country. I can maybe paint a portrait of the country for people outside the country for things that are special or unique about Iceland. Not to say why Iceland is so great, or what other countries should be doing, but rather what it’s like to be a woman in ‘the world’s best country for women’, and in doing so, paint a portrait of the country within the context of gender equality. The idea kind of grew from there.”

When I mention how the book felt more like being spoken with than talked to, Eliza seemed relieved, saying she had hoped people would read Secrets Of The Sprakkar feeling as though they were having a cup of coffee or glass of wine with her.

“I think there’s a couple things regarding the conversational nature of the book,” she says. “I always wanted my voice there; I wanted it to be a relatable story. I spoke to so many different women in the book, who were sharing their own stories with me, that I feel it wasn’t fair for me to not also share my points. I always wanted that personal dimension because that’s just how I tell stories about facts and things, but I’m obviously in an incredibly privileged position here, so I have my own story as an immigrant in Iceland who ended up getting married to the head of state, but my story doesn’t illustrate everything that there is to do with gender equality in Iceland.

“That was part of the reason why I tried to present as diverse a range of voices as I could in the book. It was really important to me to talk to regular people. When you think of who the leaders of gender equality in Iceland are, you think of all these names, and these weren’t necessarily the people I wanted to talk to. I didn’t necessarily want to talk to the spokesperson for this or that, or the head of this organisation, or the very first person to achieve something.

“I wanted more to talk just to regular people about how they experience life, within the context of different dimensions of society. That was one of the fun things, and one of the challenging things, was finding all the different people to talk to.”

Passing the mic

That emphasis on diversity was important to Eliza from the start, and informed her process in deciding who to interview, and how. I pointed out that one often hears people talk about “the immigrant experience in Iceland”, as if we all share the same experience, when in fact there are people whose nationalities, race, religion and sexuality, for example, create vastly different experiences from one another.

“It was really important for me to bring that through in the book; that there’s no cookie-cutter immigrant in Iceland, and no cookie-cutter immigrant experience,” Eliza agrees. “Within that as well, to tread the line between acknowledging that, in general, there are unique challenges that women of foreign origin face in Iceland, that women who were born in Iceland do not face, but also, that not all immigrant women are victims of prejudice, misogyny and abuse, are exploited at every turn, and have no awareness of their rights. Specifically in the chapter when I talked about immigration and chose three different stories, I tried to use those stories to highlight the challenges but also the positive things that immigrants experience. I deliberately tried to choose people who might confound stereotypes.”

“I see all these stories coming forward in the #MeToo movement and I see people saying ‘oh my goodness, when will it end?’ I hope it ends in the sense that these situations aren’t happening anymore.”

She continues: “For example, I wanted to talk about someone’s experience at the Women’s Shelter in Iceland. I was a bit nervous about putting that in the immigrant chapter, because there are also a lot of locally born Icelandic women who need the services of the Women’s Shelter, and not all immigrant women end up at the Women’s Shelter. So I chose a woman who doesn’t fit the stereotype of that; a privileged woman from a western country, who said that in some ways, she felt as though this quest for equality worked against her in her custody battle later on. I tried to draw attention to those situations.”

Just say no to leading questions

Eliza’s approach to Secrets Of The Sprakkar would do an anthropologist proud. Rather than coaxing out a preferred statement on a subject with leading questions, Eliza approached her interviewees with the pure intent to tell their stories and surprise preconceived notions.

“I try to go into interviews knowing what I wanted to ask, but also with an open mind in terms of what people might answer,” she says. “I hate it when I’m being interviewed and I can tell the person is just waiting for me to give them their one quote that they can use.

“So I tried to approach things with an open mind. One surprise was Elín, who runs the search and rescue team Brák, in Borgarnes. Because I thought, here’s a group that’s not 50/50; there are far more men who are volunteering in the search and rescue crew, and certainly more men who are running it, I thought that she might have some stories of misogyny.

“She didn’t at all. She said that of all the things she’s experienced, this was the most gender-blind institution. When I thought about it, if you have to prove your mettle by jumping out of helicopters and swimming in the sea and climbing down cliffs, everyone probably knows that you’re tough enough, whatever your gender is.

“Obviously, this is the story of one woman, and this is not to say that other women might not have experienced something, but I thought that was a really positive thing. It surprised me, but again, I tried to let people tell their stories and not try to shoehorn them into a situation to say ‘this person succeeded despite the fact that they were a woman and were fighting all the men’. Because that isn’t the story for all of them.”

Eliza also took care in how these stories were presented, to avoid patronising other countries who are dealing with their own struggles with gender equality.

“I’m also very cognisant of my position, so I wanted to avoid being too prescriptive of the book I wrote,” she says. “I know this book is primarily for a foreign audience, and I didn’t want to introduce a book that said ‘if you would just introduce laws that did X, then your country would be better’.

“I can tell the stories of people who may have benefited from legislation, but that’s not the point of the book, and I hope that people’s individual stories serve as inspiration for other people, so that we don’t feel that working towards gender equality is something that should only be left to politicians; that this is something we can all be working towards in our society, and that it’s something that’s going to benefit people of all genders. That this isn’t a women’s issue, and this isn’t an issue of women versus men; that everyone in society is going to benefit from increased equality.”

Bigger isn’t always better

On the subject of politics, it’s important to point out that laws do not appear out of the aether; they come from a philosophical position, and are doomed to fail without enough support on the community level. So what is it about Icelandic society, then, that has led to our level of gender equality?

“Our size is definitely an advantage, because we can see change happen faster,” Eliza says. “I think a great example of that is if you look at the rights of the queer community. [Musician] Hörður Torfason was so abused by homophobia here, in the 80s even, that he moved away from Iceland, and now, we are the most open towards the LGBT community of all the OECD countries.

“That is because society decided this is something we needed to fix.

“Through activism by organisations like the National Queer Organisation of Iceland, we’ve seen a huge increase in the rights of individuals; most recently in the rights of the trans community, which we’re still working towards and need to do more in. I think that shows that there’s a will to do it, and we see the results from that more quickly here.

“When you think of who the leaders of gender equality in Iceland are, you think of all these names, and these weren’t necessarily the people I wanted to talk to.”

“I think role models are also important. Having a female president was important, having a female bishop of the National Church is important. Seeing women not just in political roles, which we’re doing well in, but seeing women running companies, in the media, seeing women sporting heroes. One area where we can probably do better is in seeing women getting criticised more viciously in the media when they’re coming forward and doing things. Obviously women are going to make mistakes, too, and we need to cut them some slack. Having a diversity of role models is important. I tried to illustrate in the book with these little vignettes that I have, examples of strong women from Icelandic history, some better known than others. We get momentum from that. I really think that as a society, we’ve passed the tipping point of ‘is gender equality important’ and are more at ‘how are we going to achieve it?’ It’s important and healthy to have discussion and disagreement and debate on those issues. But I think the pendulum has swung in terms of mainstream discourse of what we’re trying to achieve.”

What even is a role model?

Eliza is quick to point out that “role model” does not necessarily mean someone at the top of their field, widely known on a national or even international level.

“I think we’re all role models,” she says. “We’re not all internationally known or nationally known, but we’re known to people. We’re known to our families, we’re known to our friendship group, to our workplaces and places of worship. We can have a positive impact there, or we can have a negative impact there. If there’s one message that comes across, I want it to be that we can all make a difference, in small ways and in big ways.

“We also need to speak up and elevate other people’s voices. I think speaking up also encourages other people to come forward. It’s so often that we might think ‘why am I going to say this when no one else has experienced this or done this and I’m just complaining’.

“I feel reluctant even talking about this given how privileged I am, but when I read this piece in the New York Times about the strange role of being the First Lady, which I wasn’t at all complaining about the incredible honour and privilege it is to serve in this capacity, but more just to draw attention to some of the preconceptions that people have about being identified primarily as somebody’s spouse.

“After I wrote the story, which I hadn’t told anybody I was going to do except my husband, the night before it was going to air I couldn’t sleep. I thought ‘why did I do this? People are just going to complain about me, I’m just asking for trouble’.

“And yet the feedback was so positive because while not that many people end up married to a head of state, a great many people are married to someone who is professionally or otherwise better known than they are, which makes them known primarily in some instances known as someone’s spouse. A lot of people could relate to that, and it showed me, at least, that I shouldn’t be nervous about speaking up about something because some person I’ve never met before might possibly criticise me.”

Don’t read the comments

Naturally, there is still a lot of room to grow when it comes to gender equality in Iceland. Any woman who has ever dared share an opinion about anything, in a public space is likely very familiar with the shocking amount of pushback you can get for being a Woman With Opinions Online.

“As I pointed out in the book, women face a disproportionate amount of vitriol for any kind of comment that they make online,” Eliza says. “An example I used is this woman who made a very rapid comment about going to this town in the north of Iceland and didn’t like it. She didn’t recommend it, and however it was worded, she was met with just all kinds of threats and allegations that she reported to the police, they were so severe. I don’t think that would’ve happened if she had been a man.”

Room for improvement extends beyond the comment sections of articles, too, of course, and few things underline that as much as the #MeToo movement. In the Grapevine’s previous cover story, we interviewed podcaster and activist Edda Falak, who pointed out that people erroneously talk about “new waves” in the movement, when to her, this is a continuous effort to fight sexual violence. Eliza very much agrees.

“Of course there’s room for improvement,” she says. “I am an optimistic person, and I always want to look on the bright side. I see all these stories coming forward in the #MeToo movement and I see people saying ‘oh my goodness, when will it end?’ I hope it ends in the sense that these situations aren’t happening anymore. But people are feeling more comfortable with coming forward now, and that’s a good thing. I want people to feel more comfortable sharing their experiences.”

Allies wanted

While the role that allies play when it comes to marginalised groups gaining hard-won freedoms is sometimes overstated, allyship is indisputably an important part of that fight. Eliza recognises this when it comes to gender equality as well.

“Having a lot of men support the idea of gender equality has been very important for how much we’ve achieved to date in this country,” she says. “Absolutely people who are committing crimes or doing bad things need to be called out, but there are a lot of male allies and men who are doing good things in this battle as well. I think we also need flexibility and an openness for people to make mistakes.”

This leads to her bringing up an example within the subject of trans liberation.

“When you talk about the trans community, for example, when we had a trans writer at the last Icelandic Writers Retreat, Ivan Coyote, they were talking about the use of pronouns,” she says. “Because a friend of mine misused their pronouns and was apologising profusely. Ivan said look, I know when someone just makes a mistake, rather than when someone is deliberately choosing to ignore someone’s preferred form of address. I just remember this, because there was this nervousness like ‘I hope they don’t think this means that I’m transphobic because I’m not.’ But this also shows a position of privilege, that is this my greatest concern, that I might for one moment feel this guilt that I’ve used the wrong pronoun, rather than face misgendering 24/7? I think it’s indicative of cis peoples’ privilege.”

Eliza is also quick to correct herself when others present her with new perspectives. She recounts having given a speech on parental leave in Iceland, following which Eva María from Pink Iceland pointed out that she could have said “one parent gets three months, the other gets three months” instead of saying “mother” and “father”. Eliza accepted the suggestion readily, saying, “I always think of this, because it’s just the simplest thing and so easy to fix.”

You don’t have to be a chef to love to cook

One of Eliza’s best-known projects is the Icelandic Writers Retreat, a workshop for writing typically held once a year in Iceland. While they had to go virtual last year, Eliza and the other organisers fully plan on holding it in person this year, from April 27th through May 1st.

She quickly points out that this is not just an event for professional writers, nor even for those hoping to write for a living.

“I don’t have a grand national vision for the country. I just hope that I can do my part to make our society a better place for everyone.”

“The inspiration for the Icelandic Writer’s Retreat was to be inclusive, in the sense that we didn’t want people to feel as though they had to audition, or to qualify to attend,” she says. “I like to say it’s like, if you like to cook, and you go to Thailand for a week and take a cooking class. You might be a Michelin-star chef, or you might be someone who likes to tinker in the kitchen. You both learn something, because you’re both in a new location, and you both have the same passion. And it works. We get people who are full time writers, we get people who are writing in a professional context, people who are trying to break into the world of mainstream publishing, people who have no ambitions to publish anything but tinker in their diary, or are working on a memoir for their family. We don’t focus on the business of writing; we don’t have classes on how to get an agent, or how to get published. It’s just about the craft of writing.”

Trying not to be a politician

Like being president, Eliza sees being First Lady as being a unifying figure for the country; focusing more on ideals and goals rather than the politicisation thereof. It’s a careful line to tread, but one that Eliza follows with a simple goal in mind.

“I acknowledge that I’m not only not a politician; I feel like I ought to deliberately not wade into the specifically political fray,” she says. “One of the things that I think is great about Iceland is I’m writing a book about gender equality, and it’s not a super-sensitive issue here. I couldn’t avoid talking to any political people, but I tried to be diverse in terms of their backgrounds and not be specific about any parties.

“I don’t have a grand national vision for the country. I just hope that I can do my part to make our society a better place for everyone.”

You can get a pre-sale copy of Secrets Of The Sprakkar direct from our shop.

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