Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the first woman to be elected a constitutional head of state when she took office in 1980, a position that she then held for a further sixteen years. During those years, she built a reputation as a champion of women’s rights and a promoter of racial equality. The length of her presidency gave her the opportunity, denied to so many other international figures whose terms of office are dictated by more rigorous domestic elections, to become a consistent voice in the international community – an opportunity that she has used to the full in promoting the country to the world at large, and contributing to the debates with a weight that far exceeded the scale of the country that put her at the table.
She was elected after a closely fought contest against three male candidates; an election that she won by promoting her pro-nationhood, apolitical, pro-culture, feminist platform to a country who, until then, had only had male presidents.
The reluctant candidate
“Icelanders saw that it was time for a woman candidate. I was approached, was reluctant at first, but as support grew and it became such a challenge, I decided to jump into it. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the campaign. It was so exciting. I travelled the country staying in supporters’ houses, being passed like a baton from one town to the next. I never slept in a hotel, I never ate in a restaurant, I slept in the children’s room every place I went. I talked about the country, the history of the country. I talked about the people, men and women alike.
When you were elected did you have a clear idea of what it is you wanted to achieve as President?
“Icelandic identity was what my campaign was about, and then it came naturally to me to use our identity and culture to promote our strengths as an independent republic to the world. I had a cosmopolitan background; I spoke French and most Scandinavian languages as well. I had a saying: ‘the culture sells the cod, better than the cod sells the culture’.
“I can never erase that I was the first woman to be elected to a Presidency in the world and I think that it is outstanding that Icelanders had the guts to do this and lead the way. That was the message I was also able to take with me on my travels.”
A woman alone
You also were a single mother; you were a woman alone in the role without a spouse or partner. On June the 17th it was you, a woman alone, who was leading the procession of dignitaries.
“That was very deliberate. I never wanted to involve my family, and I wanted to protect my daughter. I protected her childhood and I believe that she is grateful for that. I often encountered questions such as, ‘Who are you going to sit opposite you?’ and I used to say, ‘Well, let us have a round table.’ And there was a man who said once, ‘I am so grateful Vigdis that you are not married because if you were, whatever you said people would say that your husband had told you to say that.’ Whatever I have said have always been my own ideas.”
You are known internationally for your stance on the equality of women. 25 years later, has the battle you set out to fight now been won in Iceland?
“No, it hasn’t. We have made huge progress on equal rights but we still have a long way to go on equal pay. Women are still underpaid and men still get the better jobs. But everything is relative; we are far ahead of many other countries and we can be proud of many things that have happened here. There are many work places where we have secured equal pay.”
Can the pendulum ever swing too far in the other direction? Can you see a time when men’s rights need supporting?
“No, the pendulum never goes too far. You see, women do not want to lead without men’s support, but men have, to this day, considered themselves capable of leading without women’s support. Women would always take men into consideration – that is the difference. Society works best when men and women co-operate and, when it works, it is a fine moment. It is like two beams of a house holding up a house. It is the responsibility of both sexes to make that co-operation work.”
Unifier and peacemaker
How would you define the role of the President and his relationship with Parliament?
“A unifier, a peacemaker and you unite the nation by the things that the nation has in common; its culture and the country. During my time it was always a relationship of mutual respect, mutual information and the Prime Ministers came regularly to me informing me of what happened in politics. Being completely neutral, I had friends in all parties; one of my strengths has been to be completely neutral in Icelandic politics. I worked to promote the country; it was not my job to be involved in politics.”
Vigdís had agreed to the interview on the basis that I would not write about her position on Ólafur Ragnar’s refusal to sign the media bill. She was willing though to talk about the time that she wavered over signing a bill put before her in 1985.
“I never intended to refuse signing that bill, it would have been completely absurd. No. I was asked to sign a bill on the 10th anniversary of International Women’s day. As the bill involved striking stewardesses at Icelandair, I thought that it was inappropriate and unfair that I should have been asked to sign it on such an important day for our women, and I asked to see the Prime Minister before signing it. By the time the Prime Minister was able to see me to discuss the matter it was after midday, and the news went out to the country that I had not signed the bill – and that is what counted.”
“Every generation should revise the constitution”
Can you see the need for the changes in the constitution, particularly the presidency?
“I would rather not comment on the latter, but what I will say is that the constitution should be revised regularly and this revision, with the exception of a small amendment, has not happened. Every generation should revise the constitution to find out how it is best adapted to the society and community that the generation is living in.”
So does she have concerns for the country?
“It seems sad to say it but it seems that people are becoming more self-centred than they were. There are many Nordic politicians who feel that the young no longer care about playing their part in a democratic society; they feel cut off from it. This is a shame because it is not in our natures to be self-centred. We were a nation of survivors living in remote communities; we had to help each other out. And this comes at a time when there is a fissure appearing in our society. The rich are becoming richer and there are now, in this welfare society, increasing instances of poverty and the problems that go with it.
I admire so many things in our young but I have to say that Icelanders are not particularly self-disciplined. We have to be more aware of our neighbours, have more consideration. We still think too much for the day; we have not been that good in planning far ahead. We seem to
want it to want it to happen today,
with very little thought about the future. We have huge courage, but not enough forethought.”
Icelanders should go to the rest of the world for inspiration
“We can continue to offer the world a great deal. We are among the leaders in the world when it comes to fishing, in knowledge about desertification that the world will want to hear so much about in the future, because of climate changes and the associated soil erosion. And we have much to offer when it comes to safeguarding a language. The Institute of Foreign Languages, which carries my name at the University of Iceland, has just received an acknowledgement from UNESCO which is of the greatest value internationally. Many people will be able to come to Iceland and increase their learning and we, as a country, can fully participate in these three important fields.
“But Icelanders also regularly have to go out to the rest of the world to collect new inspirations, otherwise we will stagnate. What we can offer in the future is a tremendous creativity, and I believe this creativity benefits from a full-blooded contact with the rest of the world; we should not live in a shell.”
Vigdís may not be a politician but she is a diplomat to the core. The former President was at pains not to be drawn on personalities and individuals. She is not alone in this. It is the nature of public life in Iceland that, while it is a nation that literally crackles with gossip and rumour, most are wary of going on the record.
In many ways I wished that I could have interviewed Vigdís when she was on the campaign trail 25 years ago, with everything still to fight for. But that said, here is without doubt a woman who is able to offer wisdom and experience to a country that is going through growing pains and turbulent times. In addition, she has done much to help build Iceland’s international profile and helped to give it a voice on issues that affect us all.