Today is Women’s Day in Iceland and around the whole world! To celebrate we’ve made a list of five significant women in Iceland’s political history. These women rule, in the literal and figurative sense.
Today there will be a Women’s march in Reykjavík in honour of the day. It leaves from Gamla Bíó at 4 o’clock. The march goes hand in hand with strike action taken by housekeeping staff at hotels in the city, a profession made up of mostly women.
Iceland is known for ranking among the most equal in gender equality surveys. Today is a good day to reflect on the progress which has been made in women’s rights and the hurdles yet to be cleared.
See also: Gender Equality in Iceland
The slogan for this year’s International Women’s Day is Balance for Better. The aim of the day according to the International Women’s Day website is to “Celebrate women’s achievements. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.”
Read on for an introduction to some of the pioneering women in Icelandic politics. Women who fought to get us where we are today and the women who are still working to correct the gender imbalance.
Born in 1856, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir was a suffragette, journalist and Town Council member. She led the way in the fight for women’s rights in Iceland, was the first Icelandic woman to run for parliament and the first Icelandic woman to give a public lecture. As a journalist Bríet founded, wrote for and was editor of Kvennablaðið, The Women’s Paper.
Bríet had limited opportunity to educate herself. She attended a newly founded women’s school for just one year. She was an autodidact (a self-taught person) and worked as a children’s teacher. Her passion for education informed her political activism, and she fiercely supported the education of girls.
When Bríet was just 16 years old, she wrote an essay she called ‘A few words on the education and rights of women’. A reviewed version of the essay was published 13 years later under a pseudonym. The publication of the essay was integral to sparking the women’s suffrage movement in Iceland.
After a trip abroad in 1906, where she attended the Congress of International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Copenhagen, she started such an alliance in Iceland, along with 15 other women.
Bríet successfully led the Women’s Campaign in the Reykjavík local elections in 1908. She and three other women got seats on the town council (this was before Reykjavík was big enough to be a city).
See also: A History of Reykjavík
She later ran in parliamentary elections, twice. If it weren’t for new laws where voters were allowed to cross out names, she would have gotten elected to parliament. Her contribution to the Women’s Rights Movement in Iceland was invaluable.
Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason
The first Icelandic woman to be elected to Parliament was Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason. Born in 1867, Ingibjörg was a teacher, principal, MP and active member of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Ingibjörg attended The Women’s School in Reykjavík and later became its principal. She was also the first Icelander to attend a gymnastics school in Denmark. When she returned to Iceland, she taught gymnastics at The Women’s School.
In 1922, two years after women in Iceland gained universal rights to vote and run for office, Ingibjörg was elected to Parliament. She served as an MP until 1930.
Among the things she worked for were women’s education and the building of a hospital. She was the chairperson of the hospital building fund, which paid about half of the costs of building Landspítalinn, The National University Hospital of Iceland.
After her term in parliament, she remained active in the Women’s Rights Movement. She was the founding chairwoman of Kvenfélagssamband Ísland, The Icelandic Women’s Organization.
Despite her work towards women’s rights, some women criticised her for being too conservative. Perhaps the biggest criticism was that she suggested that full gender equality had been reached when Icelandic women gained the right to vote in 1915, a right which was unfairly age-restricted.
A statue of Ingibjörg, by the sculptor Ragnhildur Stefánsdóttir, was erected outside the Icelandic Parliament in 2015. A beautiful tribute to this trailblazing politician.
The world’s first democratically elected female President was Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. Born in 1930, Vigdís was Iceland’s President for 16 years. Fun fact, she was also the first single woman who was allowed to adopt a child in Iceland.
Vigdís studied French at the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne. She also studied the history of theatre at the University of Copenhagen. In addition to that, she has a degree in French and English and a certificate in education from the University of Iceland.
A highly educated woman with a passion for language and theatre. She taught French at junior college and university level after she completed her studies. She was also involved in theatre and held the position of artistic director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company for years.
Vigdís was the first Icelandic woman to run for President in 1980 and got elected, beating out three men. During her presidency, she promoted Iceland abroad, was vocal about environmental issues and the importance of both teaching foreign languages and preserving the Icelandic language.
Since her presidency, she has worked on matters related to culture and language. Including being a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages and a member of the Council of Women World Leaders.
Since 2001 the University of Iceland’s language research department has been known as the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages. In 2017 a building dedicated to the Institute of Foreign Languages was opened. The foreign language centre is called Veröld – hús Vigdísar, World – Vigdís’s House, and is open to visitors every day from 11-16.
The first female Prime Minister in Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, was also the first openly gay head of government in the world. She was once listed as one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful women in the world.
Jóhanna was a member of parliament for 35 years, from 1978 until 2013, making her the longest-serving Icelandic MP of all time. This included stints as the Minister for Social Affairs and her time as Prime Minister.
Before running for office, Jóhanna worked as an air stewardess and secretary. She was active in trade-union movements, and her work in government has been aimed at improving welfare and social affairs.
For a time she was the butt of jokes after shaking her fist and saying “My time will come!” in an invigorated speech she gave after losing the vote to be her party’s chairperson. Turns out she was correct, her time came in 2009 when she was appointed Prime Minister.
When Jóhanna was Prime Minister, the Icelandic government was, for the first time ever, completely gender balanced. Jóhanna married her wife, journalist and playwright Jónína Leósdóttir, soon after same-sex marriage became legal in Iceland in 2010.
See also: Gay Iceland | All you need to know
Iceland’s current Prime Minister is Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Katrín was recently named one of the 20 most powerful women in the world by Australia’s CEO Magazine and for good reason.
Born in 1976, she became Prime Minister at only 41 years old. Katrín is Iceland’s second female Prime Minister and the third youngest PM the country has ever had.
Katrín has been involved in politics from a young age. She has been a Member of Parliament since 2007, serving for The Left-Green Party. A party which she joined because of their progressive environmental policies.
In 2009 she became Minister for Education and Culture. Katrín has a masters degree in Icelandic literature and worked in broadcast media and as a teacher before her career in politics.
Among the legislature Katrín has been a part of changing is the laws about parental leave. According to Katrín, making paternity leave and maternity leave equal is a big step towards fixing the systematic discrimination against women.
She currently leads Iceland’s three-party coalition government. According to Katrín, she never intended to make politics her life long career and plans to do other things in the future.
Whatever Katrín does in the future, Iceland is lucky to have her as a Prime Minister and as a role model for the next generations of female politicians.
Tell us what you’re doing to celebrate International Women’s Day in the facebook box below. Do you have inspirational women in your life? Who is your favourite Icelandic politician?