Eliza Reid, First Lady of Iceland since 2016, criticises the public depiction of women representing similar roles as hers in a New York Times article called “I’m a First Lady, and It’s an Incredibly Weird Job”. While she appreciates the diversity of her position and the opportunity to spur change that comes with it, she points out that she often encounters situations in which she feels reduced to being her husband’s handbag.
Canadian-born Eliza moved to Iceland in 2003 and became the First Lady of the country when her husband Guðni Th. Jóhannesson was elected president in 2016. In fact, she worked for the Grapevine among other magazines during her first years in Iceland, and later co-founded the Iceland Writers Retreat.
When she assumed her role, she gave an interview for the Grapevine in which she made clear right from the start that she hoped to actively participate and not just stand at the sidelines during her tenure.
After being incumbent as First Lady for three years, Eliza has followed through on her aims and became a patron of many organisations such as United Nations Association Iceland, delivered several speeches, took part in panels and was honoured for her advocating of women’s and gender rights in the meantime. “To serve my adopted country in this way is a privilege and an honour for which I am very grateful”, she reports in the New York Times article.
Still, her position doesn’t come without a downside. Although the role isn’t clearly defined, it is surrounded by many assumptions on how a First Lady is supposed to act. Thus she was irritated at an Instagram post by European Council President Donald Tusk who titled the video showing Melania Trump, Brigitte Macron, Malgosia Tusk, and Akie Abe, “The light side of the Force”.
“It is regrettable to see independent, intelligent women reduced to props who exist to support their husbands’ political agendas,” Eliza writes. Whilst we may question Melania’s and especially her husband’s intelligence, Eliza does have a point. We rarely see male spouses of female leaders depicted as their soft counterparts on online platforms.
Eliza wishes to modernise the conception of the First Lady. Her personal experience, unfortunately, confirms that gender stereotypes are still very present. People often make remarks on her wardrobe and express concern about who is watching the kids when she goes on solo trips. Further, it’s widely assumed that she quit her previous job once she became First Lady. She reports that other women in her position share this experience and expressed the gradual loss of their personal identity to her.
A fierce feminist
“I am not unaware of the irony that I am in the privileged position of being able to help shape debate surrounding gender equality because of something my husband has achieved. […] I am extremely proud of my husband and his achievements — but no one wants to be judged as her partner’s accessory”, Eliza explains in the article. Icelanders should be proud of their First Lady for being both humbled by her privilege and yet using it in so many positive ways.
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