From Iceland — Getting More Women in Politics

Getting More Women in Politics

Published September 2, 2005

Getting More Women in Politics

The Social Democratic Party has newly formed a women’s group within their own party, and have planned a meeting for 16 and 17 September that will define their objectives. Currently, the Social Democrats have the greatest percentage of women in parliament – 45% – well ahead of the parliamentary average (29.26%) and even further ahead of the ruling Independence Party (21.7%). By their own estimates, 60% of their voters are women. With an already strong base of support among women, The Grapevine wanted to know why they believe it’s necessary to form an exclusive women’s group within their ranks. To this end, we spoke with Mayor of Reykjavík Steinunn Valdís Óskarsdóttir as well as with columnist, writer and one of the younger members of the women’s group, Dagbjört Hákonardóttir.

What led to the decision to form a women’s group within the Social Democratic Party?

Óskarsdóttir: The idea is old. It runs back to when the Social Democrat alliance started. There were women in the alliance who started the discussion as to whether or not there should be a venue just for us. This discussion has been going on for years, and I think people are ready to do this.

Hákonardóttir: The original idea was to have an exclusive group just for women, and there was discussion as to whether or not to have the discussion open to men. But then it was decided that this group would certainly not be the only venue to discuss equal rights. Plus, there were older women who wanted to re-enter politics and political discussions.

Óskarsdóttir: We wanted to strengthen the dialogue as well between different groups within the party. Some of the women who had been in Alþýðaflokkurinn felt as if they were far away from the women for example in the Women’s Alliance and vice versa.

Hákonardóttir: It’s hard to get young people, especially young women, involved in politics, so this was a sort of motive to get young women to join in politics.

Óskarsdóttir: It’s hard to say [why there were women who felt disconnected from the Women’s Alliance]. It depends on who you talk to. The older women were brought up in a different culture. When I graduated from university I was in the Women’s Alliance, but most of the women didn’t define themselves as feminists.
It’s important for our party to have this female front. Most of our voters – I’d say about 60% – are women. In parliament, nine out of our 20 MPs are women. One of the things I missed, when I joined the Social Democratic Party, was the culture of the Women’s Alliance, the friendship and the sisterhood. The big meetings, the coming together, good discussions, and just enjoying being together.

Hákonardóttir: It’s easy for men to bond with each other, even in the presence of women, but we need to have our own time in order to bond with each other. There are many men who certainly have an interest in gender equality issues, but we need to have our own group and as I said, this group isn’t the only venue to discuss equal rights.

Óskarsdóttir: We’re trying to learn from each other. There are some who have been involved in politics for many years, and they have a lot they can teach us.

What will the focus of this group be? What issues take top priority?

Hákonardóttir: There are voices outside the party that object to the formation of this group, such as many voices within the Independence Party. The Social Democratic Party is relatively young. We don’t have this tradition of older women getting together and making pastries and coffee like the Independence Party does. Also, when the Progressive Party had to get rid of one minister, they chose [then Minister for the Environment] Siv Friðleifsdóttir.

She was replaced by a woman, though, Minister for the Environment Sigríður Anna Þórðardóttir.

Hákonardóttir: Yes, but from she’s from the Independence Party. But I think the women in the Progressive Party really stood by Siv and supported her.

Yes, Ms. Friðleifsdóttir has been very strong on feminist issues. With women in other parties interested in the same feminist issues as you’re interested in, is there a chance that this group will be seeking to form an inter-party alliance?

Hákonardóttir: I wouldn’t say that, but they’re certainly welcome to come and be observers.

Óskarsdóttir: The idea has been to form a base of support for women within the party, to support our chairman [Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir], our women MPs, our women in local government, to share our experiences and to learn from the older women in our group. This will be a venue to discuss equal rights and feminism.

Hákonardóttir: And with elections coming up [for City Council this spring], it’s important to maintain that stability.

I’ve noticed myself that there are more women getting politically active in recent years. Why do you think that is?

Hákonardóttir: Primarily because of female role models, such as [Chairperson of the Social Democratic Party] Ingibjörg, Steinunn and the women in parliament. The more women who get involved, the more they encourage others to get involved as well.

Óskarsdóttir: This morning I had the pleasure of meeting Cherie Booth Blair, who was talking to cultural ministers from all over the world. I was impressed because she had such a strong vision for women. One of the many things she mentioned was that Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament [48.8%] in the world. I think that Iceland is in 16th. To be at this meeting energized me, and gave me much inspiration.

Hákonardóttir: I’d like to add that 50 years ago, we couldn’t imagine maternity leave being a possibility, and today we think of it as a given. It makes me think to myself, “What rights are we fighting for now that we’ll see as a given fifty years from now?” In Iceland, it’s the state of mind that needs to be addressed. I have some friends in the Independence Party who believe that it doesn’t matter whether or not women get more involved in leadership positions, whether in government or in business. In the last Independence Party elections, they put younger, less experienced men in the first seats and older, more experienced women in the second seats or lower.

Óskarsdóttir: Which is maybe one reason not to vote for the Independence Party.

At this point Óskarsdóttir had to attend a meeting but the conversation with Hákonardóttir continued.

Why do you think women should get involved in this group?

Hákonardóttir: First and foremost, if you’re not an extremist and you’re not apathetic, then you’ll certainly find a place among these broad-minded people. We’re a true social democratic party following the Scandinavian model, we’re positive towards contact with other European countries. We choose to work with everyone. We’re a moderate party. The Social Democratic Party also has modest ways. The Independence Party has been rallying for car owners and wants to build single-family homes in the west – and they blame us for a not-so-smooth traffic! The Social Democratic Party has also been very adamant about developing the Vatnsmýri area [where the city airport is currently situated], which the Independence Party has been opposed to. I think our goals are clearer, we answer all questions easily and, instead of shifting responsibility like the Independence Party, we take responsibility. And that’s what the voters want.

What does the group have planned next?

Hákonardóttir: The local elections. It’s been a very exciting year, and I think it’s going to be very exciting to see what happens.

All those interested in attending the meeting of women in the Social Democratic Party this 16 and 17 September can contact Árdís Sigurðardóttir at or call 414-2200.

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