From Iceland — Madam President

Madam President

Published March 24, 2014

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir on fashion and the times

Madam President

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir on fashion and the times

Arriving at Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s house just before noon on Friday, I find a note on the door: “Anna, please wait! I’m on my way,” signed “ViFi.” I go back to the car and nervously watch the clock. I do not want to keep Vigdís Finnbogadóttir waiting. I let eight minutes go by before trying again. This time, her note is gone and there’s a car in the driveway. I ring the bell and the 83-year-old former president of Iceland comes to the door.

“Did you get my note?” she asks, inviting me into her home.

It was here, outside Aragata 2 in 101 Reykjavík, that thousands of Icelanders gathered on June 30, 1980 to congratulate Vigdís on becoming the fourth president of the Republic of Iceland. Vigdís waved to the crowd from her balcony wearing a now iconic wool dress that one of her supporters had given her during her campaign along with instructions not to wear it until she had secured her victory. The following day, newspapers all over the world would run the headline “Woman Elected President.” Vigdís was not only Iceland’s first democratically elected female president, but also the world’s first.

Vigdís shows me into her living room and offers me cider, remarking that it is a favourite of the children in the house. She is referring to her grandchildren, three girls who belong to her only daughter. It’s perhaps a lesser-known fact that Vigdís was a single mother when she was elected into office at age 50, having been one of the first single women in Iceland to be granted permission to adopt a child in 1972.

She returns from the kitchen with a bottle and pours us each a glass. “I hope you don’t want to talk about politics,” the former president says.


Vigdís at her home on Aragata, a week after we meet. Photo by Ari Magg.


Let’s start with the exhibit featuring your clothes at the Museum of Design and Applied Art. It’s called “Are You Ready, Madam President?” Tell me, what does that refer to?

Well, I didn’t come up with the title and the exhibit is completely independent of me so to speak, but it refers to the fact that it is three, four, five times as much work for a woman to be in an official position than it is for a man. A man my age—I was 50 when I was elected—with the same background, he would have already had the outfit needed for formal events, and he would have been able to keep all his speeches and lectures inside his jacket pocket [opens her jacket, motions as if tucking a speech into a pocket], but that’s not possible for a woman.

The exhibit has great historical significance, which is something that I think men don’t realise. I’ve heard that men—elderly men at least—think that this exhibit is only for women, but it’s far from that. It shows, and this is something I realised early on, that it’s not enough for a woman to be intelligent. Intelligence has to have a modern ‘coiffure,’ as they say in French [meaning haircut]. When a woman starts speaking in an official capacity, everybody scrutinises her appearance: What is she wearing? Does she look old-fashioned? You have to be well dressed and preferably up-to-date with the latest fashion, and this proved rather expensive for a theatre director [her job before becoming president].

The exhibit features a number of outfits from the early years of your presidency, as the moment you walked into office you had to define your image—who you were and what you wanted to represent. I imagine that it would have been easier to have this uniform that men have—a basic suit that hasn’t changed in the last fifty years.

“I think, if the world can be saved, it will be by women.”

Yes. I think that Angela Merkel is very clever—I am full of admiration for her solution to the clothing problem. She is always elegant in what is more or less a uniform: jackets in various colours that she rotates. Margaret Thatcher always wore a suit with pearls and often a hat to underline her femininity. Madeleine Albright also wore a suit, but always accessorised with a huge brooch to emphasise that she is a woman.

While you were always very modern and elegantly dressed yourself, you also made use of the Icelandic formal costume [‘skautabúningur’] when you attended banquets with foreign leaders.

Well, I never wore the traditional costume—the ‘peysuföt’ or ‘upphlutur’—but I wore the formal costume on certain occasions when I was a guest of foreign dignitaries, kings and queens or prime ministers, especially in the Nordic countries. Once I wore it in Spain where I was the guest of [King] Juan Carlos and the next day the papers said that madam had been at the dinner in her national costume with a very funny hat.

What, with a funny hat? So it’s clear the media was paying attention to what you were wearing. 

Yes, they definitely were.


For instance, when you met Queen Margaret on your first official visit to Denmark there was that headline, “President in sheepskin, Queen in furs.” Tell me more about that.

Well, I was asked something that a man would never have been asked—I was asked to promote the Icelandic wool—coats, dresses and later sweaters—which Icelanders were starting to market abroad. On all my official visits I made a point of introducing Icelandic products, something that is not as well remembered today. For instance, I often travelled with a cook, my Hilmar—Hilmar B. Jónsson, who is now vice chair of the World Association of Chefs Societies—to introduce Icelandic food exports. We often brought a chest full of Icelandic food to put out on an exhibition table when we went abroad.

So [when I went to meet Queen Margaret] I had been given this marvellous sheepskin coat to wear and when I got off the plane the queen was standing there, very tall in this long mink coat, and I had the feeling I looked like a snowball rolling down the stairs from the plane. It was marvellous publicity because it was in all of the papers the next day. The Danish visit was a great success. We got along well together, and I was in wool the whole time for my Icelanders.

Right, and it was made by the Sláturfélag Suðurlands tannery [whose best selling product is a hot dog]. Is there any other outfit at the exhibit that you think is particularly significant or worth talking about? 

Well, I made a point of being elegant at dinners with my hosts in foreign countries and of course in Iceland as well. Most of the time I was wearing something that had been designed for me. For instance, on my first official visit to Denmark I wore a long white evening gown that was designed by Valentino in Italy.


Vigdís on her first official visit to Denmark in February 1981. She is wearing a custom sheepskin coat made by Sláturfélag Suðurlands tannery (whose best-selling product today is a hot dog). Photo by Ragnar Th.

But behind every garment in this exhibition is tremendous intellectual work—the speeches I prepared and delivered in those garments. There were always great expectations when I stood up to speak because I was the first woman to be elected president. I had to live up to those expectations to prove that a woman could do it. I had this gusto, this feeling that I couldn’t fail—it was my duty not to fail on behalf of the women of the world. Wherever I went I was asked to do interviews, because people saw in me something that women had achieved. I was so grateful to see and feel that my election had inspired women all around the world.

There is one thing that should have been in this exhibition but is actually lost. It was a small bag, like a doctor’s bag, that we called the ‘Treasure Chest.’ We called it the ‘Treasure Chest’ because I used it to carry all my speeches and the books I quoted from. There was always somebody responsible for keeping an eye on it. It never got lost until now when we wanted to put it on display, but of course it’s been eighteen years since everything was packed up.

There’s a quote on a wall at the exhibition: “I’m not a man and I never have been and my principle has always been not to try to act like a man.” Could you elaborate on that?

Sometimes when women get elected to positions of power they start acting like men. They start being tough like men. My vision and understanding of the world is a woman’s understanding of the world, not a man’s—I have never tried to copy a man. I think it’s very important that a woman remembers that she is a woman and not a man. You’re a woman, so keep being a woman and show women and men that you are a woman. This sends the very important message that women are equal to men.

So how does a woman’s understanding of the world compare to a man’s understanding? 

Women tend to have a greater understanding of the human being, which is often considered a soft spot, but all societies are fortunately composed of men and women and neither one can be without the other. Unfortunately though, women in many societies don’t have the same opportunities as men. The interesting thing is that women raise the boys and often urge them to become tough men; they’re not to be sissies.

I have three granddaughters and people sometimes say, “oh, you only have girls,” and I say, “Oh yes, I’m collecting girls because I think, if the world can be saved, it will be by women—with the help and friendship of men.”


Going back to when you were elected president, can you tell me what was happening in Icelandic society at the time that made it suddenly possible for a woman to become president?

Well, you don’t wake up one morning and decide that you’re going to be president. My election came in the wake of October 24, 1975, the great Woman’s Day Off [‘Kvennafrídagurinn’] when women left their workplaces, with permission from their bosses, to meet in downtown Reykjavík and in towns and villages around Iceland. Icelandic women were unhappy that they weren’t being taken seriously in politics—there were so few women in parliament—so they organised this meeting. Icelandic women had heard that this day would mark the beginning of the United Nations’ ‘International Women’s Year,’ so they wanted to do something here. It’s such an amazing story. On that day, society in a way shut down and it proved that women are—like men—pillars of society. That is all clear to us now.

What was it like to be there on that day?

I was at work [as a theatre director]—we were premiering a play the next day—and all of the women came to my door and asked, “Do you think that we could go?” As you know with theatre, the show must go on. “You have to decide that for yourselves,” I told them, “but I’m going to go.” So we all went together and it was a lot of fun. It was very well organised. It became world news: “Women’s Strike in Iceland!” And I have heard that people out there in the wide world first thought that the Icelandic women were striking in the bedroom, like in Lysistrata [a Greek comedy by Aristophanes, in which women withhold sex to convince men to end the Peloponnesian War].

When it came to the presidential elections in 1980, many people in Iceland were adamant that a woman should be among the candidates. So people started looking for a woman they could ask to run and I saw my name in the paper as a possibility. Immediately I said, “No, I would never do that.” Today I think it would be quite natural for a woman to say, “I think I could do that,” but in those days, good heavens no. Many women would have considered it too forward.

It sounds like it was important that there simply be a female candidate. After you decided to run, did you dream of actually winning the election and becoming president?

I was not dreaming. I was working, travelling all over the country meeting people. So many people, not the least men, wanted me to run. People knocked on my door at the theatre and said, “you have to do this.” So I yielded. I wanted to prove that a woman could campaign. Two of us [Guðlaugur Þorvaldsson, State Arbitrator] alternated being ahead in the polls and it so happened that I won with a narrow margin [33,8% versus 32.3%]. Typical woman, I actually felt bad for my opponent—he was a nice man and would have been a good president. There were times when I thought the margin was too narrow, but now I realise that I can be proud of that. I’m also very proud of my Icelanders for having had the guts to vote a woman into the office—for daring to be the first in the world to do so.

When you were running, did you realise that you could be the first in the world? 

No, I didn’t think of it. I knew of strong women—Golda Meir [fourth prime minister of Israel] and Indira Gandhi [third prime minister of India]—but they weren’t presidents or elected in a general election.


Vigdís standing on her balcony after her election in June 1980. She is wearing a wool dress hand-knit and designed by supporter Steingerður Hólmgeirsdóttir. Photo by Gunnar Elison, used with permission from the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.


Was there anything in your background that prepared you to be president? Was being a theatre director helpful?

I think being a theatre director was very good preparation, that and having studied the humanities and being a literary person. From morning when the rehearsals start until night when the curtain falls, theatre involves analysing humanity—the human being versus society, society versus the human being, love and jealousy, how people manage to live together—all the aspects of life. This leads me to the question: What is a presidency about?

That’s a good question actually. What is the presidency about?

It’s about human beings. It’s about understanding and being sensitive to how people think and feel. I didn’t think of myself as a political figure. It’s clear to me, as I understand the Constitution, the president—which is a non-partisan post—delegates executive power to the government. I understand my people—I understand the Icelanders, their way of thinking.

What is the Icelandic way of thinking? Can you describe it or is it a difficult thing to get at and more just something that you sense?

The Icelandic way of thinking is very linked to nature. Icelanders have to get the hay into the barn before it starts to rain. They have to catch the cod before it swims past the coast. So they have to get things done and they are impatient and they are stubborn and stick very stubbornly to what they think is the truth.

Icelanders are not trained in the art of discussion because they don’t have philosophy in their heritage. The Nordics—except for the Danes who have Kierkegaard—don’t have philosophers. Say you’re with six French friends and nobody agrees—the arguments are very intellectual: ‘Remember what Pascal said,’ someone will say. ‘No, you can’t say that because Schopenhauer…’ another will say. They can always refer to ideas. We don’t refer to ideas and so our discourse can become very harsh. Do you think there is truth in that? [she laughs]

Absolutely. I think that’s probably a good description of what’s going on today. 

This is a shortcoming that can harm us as an entity—because we are so few it is extremely important that we stand together and that we do not have feuds in our society.


Feuds seem to be a hallmark of Icelandic society today. The government is bickering back and forth about the EU. Icelanders are protesting at Austurvöllur. If you were president today, how would you address this?

It is very sad that people cannot find a way to work through their disagreements. I would try to encourage my people to stop arguing. I would always encourage the nation to concentrate on what is worth safeguarding in this country: identity, language—memories that are stored in the language—and not least, nature. I think that we have to take great care of the real treasure that is our nature. Safeguarding Icelandic nature is a huge responsibility.

I ask because one of the reasons that Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson gave for deciding to seek re-election had to do with the fact that times were uncertain. There were so many big questions facing the nation, such as the EU.

Do you really believe that?

Of course one could argue that he’s been a divisive figure. I’m not sure if whatever he’s doing counts as acting as a unifier.

I would not mix politics with the presidency.

You were politically active, speaking out against NATO in Iceland for example, before becoming president.

Yes, I’m a pacifist.

…But you never felt that you should be more political in office?

Absolutely not. The president is voted for in a general election as a non-partisan figure. In my time, the people chose me to be a spokesperson for this country—to represent our identity—and they realised at the time that I could speak to the world as a woman.

In 1993, 34,000 people signed a petition protesting the government’s plan to join the EEA. As a representative of the people, did you ever consider using article 26 [the president’s power to refuse to sign a bill into law and thereby refer it to a referendum]?

“It is three, four, five times as much work for a woman to be in an official position than it is for a man.”

I thought because the bill had been put forth by parliament that I should sign it into law or resign if I were against it. I had meetings in this very room with scholars and specialists, and we discussed it from all sides. It was a tremendous responsibility, and I considered resigning because I thought I had been asked too much as an apolitical figure. When I signed it, I explained that this had never been done before in the history of the republic and I preferred not to take that step. After all these years, I think it was wise.

You’ve said people were upset afterwards, that they stopped greeting you on the street.

Yes, it was a sensitive issue for a while and I felt it because I knew exactly who wanted me to do it. Who told you all of this?

Actually [current president] Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson mentioned it when I interviewed him before the last election. He said that every president had done something that made them temporarily unpopular, and he brought this up as an example.

Well, he has taken this up as his morning bread.

I know you mentioned you didn’t want to talk about politics, but if it’s not out of bounds I wonder what you think about the last election results and the implications they have for the changing role of the president.

I’m not a judge of the opinion of my people. Sometimes I understand them so well, but sometimes I do not understand them. Let’s put it this way: politically, I do not always understand them.

I would never say anything negative about my successor, but that doesn’t mean that I am a “yes woman.” I’ve never been that. I have very strong opinions, but I don’t air them. If I disagree with something I would never say it, because I care for my people. I care more for whatever opinion they have—it’s strange to say it—I don’t think there are many that they can count on to be neutral. Nobody can say who was right or wrong until history analyses it.

Tell me more about what you wanted to accomplish as president. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

I think those were good years for the Icelanders. I promoted the country. I was the first president to adopt that role because I became so well known after being elected. It was extraordinary. I was invited all over the world because—I would joke about it—the world wanted to see what kind of phenomenon this was: a woman president. It was so alien. I was like an alien.

I helped Icelanders understand the importance of safeguarding nature. It was a symbolic thing to start tree planting and I really encouraged that. Safeguarding nature—binding the land and making Iceland greener—was one of my emphases, and I’m very proud of that. This country is blowing out to sea, and we have to reclaim it.

I also promoted intellectual life, the culture of the country and language, which is our national treasure. The land—our nature—and language, those are our national treasures. They are what makes us a nation.

Language is your main focus today?

Today I focus on the [Vigdís Finnbogadóttir] Institute of Foreign Languages under the auspices of UNESCO at the University of Iceland. It’s a multilingual centre that is more important than most people realise, as it speaks to everybody around the world. When it becomes a reality, it will be an intellectual centre representing the world’s great variety of cultures through language. There are 6,800 living languages in the world, and it is important to safeguard them so that the memories and knowledge contained in them are not lost. You don’t have memory without language. Your language is your identity. You can never escape that.


Photo by Ari Magg.


In the last election we came close to seeing another female president. Do you think her gender was an issue? 

No, it’s not an issue anymore. I’m rather grateful that I did this, because I broke the glass ceiling, not just for Iceland, but for the whole world—and it was world news. The headlines read “Woman Elected President,” not who was elected, just woman elected. I got the headline sent to me in Chinese. It was strange.

Since I was the first woman in the world, L’Académie Française—the French Academy—had a meeting to discuss whether I should be addressed ‘Madame la présidente’ or ‘Madame le president’, when I was invited to pay an official visit in France. They decided that it should be ‘Madame le président’ and then I met women in parliament—at l’Assemblée générale—and they asked me, ‘how can you accept that they want to call you Madame le président? You are a woman. Why don’t you use Madame la présidente?’ Now it’s natural to say, ‘Madame la présidente. Ah oui, Madame la présidente.’

Of course it’s been 34 years since I was elected. In 1996 when I stepped down as president I became the founding chair of The Council of Women World Leaders [made up of female presidents and prime ministers] and there were about seven of us—Mary Robinson, Thatcher didn’t want to join us, [Tansu] Çiller, yes we were six, seven—and now there are almost 50. That is something.

What do you think are the main reasons that we haven’t achieved gender equality in Iceland today, 30 some odd years after you entered office as the first female?

I think in a way it is an unconscious thing in society—in every society. Women in the world still have a ways to go before men accept that they are their equals. Why is that? Are they afraid? Of what? Mind you, women with the same specialised education, such as doctors, are equally paid, but there are so many jobs in society that are considered women’s jobs and are therefore not valued as highly. It’s also still the case that the same job is labelled differently for a man than it is for a woman. He’s called ‘verkstjóri’ (“foreman”) while she’s called ‘yfirmaður þvottahús’ (“laundromat manager”). The world still thinks that men are intellectually stronger than women. We know that they are not so lucky.

It’s very remarkable though, as soon as women show the world that they have a head equal to a man’s head—which is very difficult for men to accept, even today, because they are so used to running the world—an invisible hand comes and changes the fashion. It shortens the skirts to show the legs. It cuts the dresses to show the bosom and the lower back. It’s as if the fashion is saying: “Remember girls, you are sex objects, first and foremost.” Women’s bodies are beautiful of course, but they are going around half naked with fully dressed men only because women’s fashion encourages them.

For instance, these heels—I’m sorry if you are wearing them [she looks under the table to check (I wasn’t!)]—these heels make it so women can’t walk. I was with my colleagues at UNESCO in Azerbaijan and a couple of us had been invited to a presidential palace with marble steps and I watched one of my colleagues in these heels and thought, ‘Good heavens, will she manage to go down these steps?’ She managed, but you should have seen her—a very elegant woman who suddenly became crippled.

So this has changed since you were president?

The fashion in the ‘80s was different. All over the world, my colleagues—well I didn’t have many female colleagues, but their wives and women in parliament—wore elegant suits. In the ‘80s everyone was designing these suits for women who were ready to step forth and wanted to be elegant. Today you open a magazine and everyone looks the same. I was asking my friends the other day, ‘did we actually all look alike?’ Today there is tendency for fashion to put everyone into the same shape, a tendency for fashion to take away from personality. I am very curious to see how women are dressed at the Oscars. That will be a guideline to the next steps in fashion—how they are underdressed.

See also:

Are You Ready, Madam President?

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