Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir (1856-1940) was the most prominent Icelandic women’s rights advocate of the late 19th and early 20th century. A tireless campaigner, teacher, journalist and magazine editor, Bríet was also part of the first group of women who were elected to Reykjavík’s City Council, in the 1908 municipal election. She went on to attend International Women’s Suffrage Conferences, making contacts with suffragettes around the world, sharing thoughts and ideas that would go on to influence Icelandic life for years to come.
In 1885, when the long battle for women’s suffrage was in its early stages, the 29-year-old Bríet wrote a remarkable article in the magazine ‘Fjallkonan’ under the pseudonym “Æsa.” The piece, “A Few Words On The Education And Rights Of Women,” was the first in Icelandic to raise the subject of gender inequality—and probably the first newspaper article written by an Icelandic woman. To celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in Iceland, we have translated a few excerpts from it for your perusal.
“A Few Words On The Education And Rights Of Women”:
In this age of learning and progress, many important issues regarding the nation’s well-being and development have been discussed and written about, and it must be said that many have written very well. Thus it is surprising how few have found the calling to write about an issue, which is without a doubt one of the most important of all; the education and rights of women. […]
It’s truly remarkable how tight a grip men hold over women’s freedoms and rights. It seems that they think it an important and exclusive right, based on ancient tradition, that they be everything to women, and that women can’t be anything at all. They justify this by referencing the scripture, that the woman is but a “rib from a man,” and can therefore never be anything more, and that the “man is the woman’s head.” They leave out the last bit of this oft-repeated proverb.
Either their memory doesn’t extend any further, or they do not think it worthy of consideration. Naturally, men, who do not have more intelligence than to think that education and progress for women is somehow threatening to them—and who do not have more honor than to want to base their own prestige and progress on the humiliation and enslavement of women—hold these words in great esteem (even though they know no other words from the Bible, nor believe in it).
But in spite of all their arguments and all their objections, they are never able to provide sound reasons for why they think women are less fit for education than men, or why they should enjoy fewer rights. What’s more, they can’t deny that now, in this age of progress and freedom, the conditions for women are in many ways worse than during the days of our forefathers, who nevertheless were much more backwards than present-day people.
We only need to read the Sagas to see that women shared far more control with their husbands during those days, and were far more independent. […]
So that our daughters may become useful members of society, their parents and relatives must value their talents in the same way that they do their sons. They must stop making such a great distinction between young men and women. They must keep in mind that their children’s mentality and aims are chiefly their responsibility.
Should the daughters not possess a clear idea of how absurd it is that young girls cannot operate without help from their brothers or other men, it needs to be clarified. We must ensure that our daughters realize how much enterprise and resolve can accomplish. They must see how vapid affectation and prudery is a sign of lack of education and an inferior mind, but that the greatest and most enduring beauty is a noble and active will, and a desire to work for the good of oneself and others.
But, on the other hand, it is women’s own responsibility to do anything in their power to show that they are more than mere claptrap, that they possess the skills and intention to be their brothers’ equals. They need to show indeed, that they are as capable of taking part in life’s solemnities as well as its diversions. Women have often been accused of unneeded affection and prudery—and not without reason. However, those disadvantages are somewhat a result of the lack of education that women suffer from.
Women are not created only to serve as decorative ornaments inside the house, possessing no determination, and to be of no use other than to entertain the eyes of those who look at them. No, the woman is created to carry the same responsibilities and possess the same rights as man, to the extent that her talents and intentions allow. She is equal to her brothers and companion to man. She therefore needs to harbor an alert interest in her rights, and also show that she has both the sense and intention to make use of them. Women cannot regard getting married as their only calling.
History also shows that women of all ages and all positions have taken a great part in the interests of their nations, and often worked intrepidly for the benefit of their motherland. […]
I hope that men will consider this seriously sooner than later, and not only the few who have raised the issue, but the general public as a whole. I hope that women will see for themselves that their own health and rights are at stake, and that they will not sit idle and silent any longer, when someone campaigns for them, but march confidently and fight the languor, enslavement and prejudice that so far have stifled any mental and worldly progress. I hope that they will find the truth in the saying “knowledge is power.” I hope that they will now finally understand the sign of times and see that they should arise from this slumber. I hope that they will want to see that they are the legitimate daughters of the ancient and free Icelanders that will not allow anyone to take away their rights and freedom.