Icelandic suffragettes reaped the fruits of their labour on June 19, 1915, one hundred years ago, when women over the age of 40 were given the right to vote (followed by all adult women five years later). Celebrating this momentous anniversary, the Reykjavík City Council’s Forsætisnefnd (“Presidential Committee”) has been promoting a hundred events this year that celebrate women’s achievements. All of the events are connected to women’s issues, and share the aim of making women and their work more visible in society. We met with Sóley Tómasdóttir, the chair of said committee, at her City Hall office to find out what Reykjavík has planned to mark the occasion.
Sóley sits on the City Council on behalf of the Left Green Party, and is an outspoken feminist. She spoke very humbly about her role on the committee, and stressed that it’s a group effort, with the other two deputy chairs and many others working hard to put together the schedule of events. “My role there is to facilitate,” she explained, “so that as many organisations and people as possible have the opportunity to host events, work with the city, and partake in the celebrations.”
Sóley said the planned events vary widely in size, scope and subject, with some being organised by the grassroots feminist movement, and others by civic-minded groups. One upcoming event in particular has caught Sóley’s interest, as it’s being planned by the same young feminists behind the #6dagsleikinn, #freethenipple and #konurtala social media campaigns. “
On June 19, we’ll give them free rein to do what they want in city hall,” said Sóley, “and I honestly have no idea what they’ll get up to. We just wanted to create the space and environment for them to realise their ideas on their own terms.”
Sóley was clearly proud of what these young people are doing, and the new wave of feminist awareness washing over Iceland in their wake. “Feminism is like a force of nature,” she said. “After a certain amount of pressure has built up, it erupts onto the surface and shakes everything up. It did that when women left work on October 24, 1974, when the women’s list political movement was made in the 80s, as well as when Iceland’s feminist society was made in 2003. Now it’s happening again on social media, with renewed energy from the new generation, and it’s proving to be very effective.”
When asked whether it’s sad that we need such a monumental anniversary to spur society into action and to put on a series of events like this, Sóley shook her head, and said it was more depressing that society is still as misogynistic as it is. “We need to seize every opportunity we’re given to celebrate the milestones we’ve reached, and to push forward,” she suggested.
Events and female empowerment
The committee will promote numerous events through existing festivals and events like RIFF and Reykjavík Pride, as well a celebration on October 24—the date that women in Iceland will strike to protest the gender-based wage gap (this has been an annual occurrence for the past 40 years).
The Young Ones Are Running This Show
On June 19 from 13:00 and onwards, a number of young feminists will put on a series of events they call ‘Engin helvítis blóm!’ (“No fucking flowers!”) at City Hall. This will include:
- A live concert from feminist duo Hljómsveitt, Áfram stelpur, and Unnur Sara Eldjárn.
- Stand-up comedy with Bylgja Babýlon and Snjólaug Lúðvíksdóttir.
- Video performance from #freethenipple organisers, and by artist Kitty Von Sometime.
- Speeches by Eydís Blöndal, Björk Brynjarsdóttir, and Steinunn Ólína Hafliðadóttir.
- Sign-making workshop with members of the SlutWalk.
- Open mic.
- ‘Igniting the flame in our fellow women’ performance.
Sóley said that while the committee doesn’t have much of a budget, what they have—in spades—are resources. “There was a self-defence course planned for women, that was struggling to find a venue,” she said. “We were able to find a gymnasium that suited their needs. We also have a lot of people working for the city that have very specific skill-sets, and they can help organisers with all sorts of tasks.”
As part of the celebration, on March 31, the City Council was exclusively composed of women, and they passed two motions that have special significance for women. Sóley said one had to do with establishing a committee to come up with suggestions for how to protect victims of abuse and combat gender-based violence, an area in which the United Nations Human Rights Council noted Iceland could improve.
The other motion involves organising a large-scale event to celebrate women’s accomplishments this September. It will overtake every nook and cranny of the City Council centre for the whole month. With daily art and music performances planned to happen all over the building, Sóley has high hopes for it. “We’ll celebrate famous women like [former president] Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and [pop icon] Björk Guðmundsdóttir,” she said, “as well as ordinary women, who do important things without necessarily receiving credit or praise for it, like all of our grandmas, aunts and friends.”
Sóley confessed that when the committee started their work earlier in the year, she felt worried that 100 events was unrealistic. But after nearly six months and forty unique events, Sóley is getting more and more confident about the potential. “I’m certain we’ll get through one hundred— and more,” she said, before running off to another meeting.
Those interested in participating can register their events by sending an email to city council.
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From the outside looking in, Iceland may appear to be a rocky little utopia of feminist ideals (and elves). It has been ranked again and again as one of the best places to live as a woman, as it has the smallest gender gap in terms of salary, education, healthcare, and political representation.