June 19, 1915. Icelandic women had struggled for years, pleading their case for suffrage, pleading their case for some semblance of equality. Two years after the bill was put forth by Alþingi it was finally ratified by the Danish King. Women in Iceland had the right to vote – well kind of. Widowed and married women had been allowed to vote since the early 1900s, mainly due to the fact that a lack of a man in the cases of landowning women made them sort of ‘social men’ in terms of their role.
From Saga to Suffrage
Frigg – Old Norse Goddess and wife of Óðinn – is often considered by historians to be a divine and noble woman, an upholder of peace and high moral code; a strong female character and role model for young Icelandic women to look up to. Then the powers that be went and deemed her the patron of marriage and childbirth. These are, of course, two important facets of any civilization – couples must shack up and babies must be made – but you’d think such a strong woman could be made patron of something considerably less gender-specific.
Despite the big man’s first lady being a representation of roles that would see women barefoot and pregnant (or maybe because of it), the women of Iceland wanted more for themselves – change, rights, and of course a leader.
Approached by the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1904, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir was declared the perfect candidate for such a role. Being a widow, she was financially independent, her own woman, a cracking speaker – fluent in English and Danish – and, rather importantly, the owner of popular woman’s mag Kvennablaðið – picture the credentials of an early twentieth century Oprah Winfrey, if you will. She had the power to speak out, and the advantage of reaching women all across the island, proclaiming that the cornerstone for all women’s rights stems from their eligibility in politics.
After spearheading the collection of over 11.000 women’s signatures – nearly the same amount of legal male voters – the national press still expressed their distrust in women’s suffrage. Newspaper Þjóðólfur labelled Icelandic women as being ‘outstandingly ignorant and apathetic about all public affairs;’ declaring that ‘if a woman takes a strong interest in politics, it is practically always the case that a man closely related to her, husband, father, brother or sweetheart, has passed on his view to her.’
Up against a barrage of scepticism, the women of Iceland persisted in pushing for their right of suffrage within the Alþingi, finally succeeding on June 15, 1915, when the Danish King Christian X signed the bill allowing Icelandic women 40 years and older the vote. This was only the beginning.
We’ve come a long way, sister!
Women’s issues are not just for women and equality of the sexes is a necessary component of a strong and successful society. A lot has happened over the course of the last 94 years – the voyage from suffrage to the election of Europe’s first openly lesbian prime minister was by no means a short one. The following are some important milestones in Icelandic women’s struggle for gender equality:
*During the 1970 trade union May Day parade in Iceland, a gigantic female effigy brandishing the words: ‘A Human Being – Not a Commodity,’ caused a sensation amongst the parade attendees. It turned out to be the work of the Rauðsokkur (“the Red Stocking movement”), otherwise known as the Icelandic Women’s Liberation. The movement called for an open debate on the oppression of women and discussion of the issues concerning equality. Red Stockings also campaigned against beauty pageants, drawing attention to the issue of women as a marketing commodity.
*October 24, 1975, 90% of Icelandic women commenced a large-scale strike – raising the question on unsatisfactory pay and bigoted prejudice inside and outside the work place. The men of Iceland were not amused. Shutting down schools, factories, markets and even, shock horror, having to cook their own dinner!
*In 1976, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Security published the ‘Act on Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women and Men’, aiming to establish and maintain equal status and equal opportunities for both women and men, promoting gender equality in modern society, and developing personal enterprises and skills irrespective of gender. However, statistics reveal that Icelandic women still earn on average only 64.15% of men’s overall wages.
*Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected president of Iceland in 1980, making her the world’s first female democratically elected president. The single mother received 33.6 percent of the national vote, beating three other male opponents. Vigdís gracefully retired in 1996 as a popular promoter and cultural ambassador of Iceland.
*December 2008, Audur Capital founders Halla Tómasdóttir and Kristin Petursdóttir collaborated with singer Björk to set up an ecologically sound investment fund to help recover the fallen economy, bringing female values into a male dominated realm of wealth and private equity. Halla quite rightly stated that women have a big role to play which goes back to our Viking era – while men were out there pillaging, the women were back at home running the show.
*Sunday, February 1st 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was appointed as Iceland’s current Prime Minister. She is noted as being the world’s first openly gay head of state. Her victory is seen as not only a return to left-wing policies but also a sign that women are taking a stronger role in running the country. Time online claimed that more women than ever returned to parliament, and that Iceland’s ancient assembly was now fourth in the world in terms of female participation. Ladies we applaud you.