Iceland. A country, an island, and a feminist nation. I’ve never been there, but I would like to go one day to see the sun at midnight in summer and experience the society that empowers women. Iceland’s feminist-based ideology is one that I can wholeheartedly get behind.
Iceland and the Working Woman
The Economist recently chose Iceland as the best place for working women. The Nordic country got a better score on the index for women and work than Canada (11th place) and the United States (19th place). The UK was in the 24th spot.
Let’s dig deeper into The Economist‘s findings. In Iceland, women have close to half (44 percent) of seats on listed-company boards. This is thanks to voluntary political-party quotas.
And, get this: Women achieved 48 percent of seats in Iceland’s parliament in 2016. This was (and is) a huge accomplishment as, according to the Huffington Post, Iceland was the first country to have that many women in a single legislative body. Wow. Compare that to the 19 percent of women in Congress in the U.S.
Furthermore, the Guide to Iceland explains that women compose 66 percent of total university graduates and that 80 percent of women in Iceland work. These numbers show that the small island is progressive, and makes noteworthy strides in gender equality largely because women have taken matters into their own hands.
Iceland’s Advancements in Gender Equality
By now you may be asking yourself, why is Iceland closer to achieving gender equality than Canada, the U.S., and so many other countries? Looking back at the island nation’s history helps provide insights.
For centuries, Icelandic women were at home while their husbands went to sea. The women were responsible for getting the food, creating the home, and making sure everything didn’t hit the fan. They made sure money was spent reasonably and helped the country grow.
By the mid-1970s, though, women were fed up with this lifestyle, suggests The Guardian in a recent article. Women wanted pay equal to men and to have more representation in parliament. Of the 63 members of parliament, only three of them were women. So, the women decided to take action themselves, forming a grassroots type of movement.
The date: October 24, 1975. On this legendary day in Iceland, feminists stepped onto the streets of its capital and biggest city, Reykjavik, to protest the current conditions for women. This march of 25,000 women joins the Fifth Avenue protest in Manhattan on August 20, 1970, as a momentous occasion. And that’s not all. An even stronger message was sent by the 90 percent of women who went on strike, from that moment, both in the home and the workplace. They didn’t do housework at home or tasks at the office.
This action would prove that women could not be forgotten and were, indeed, indispensable in all areas of life. Shops closed, as did banks and factories. Men took their children to work as they had no option but to do so. This momentous day in 1975 has come to be known in Iceland as the Women’s Day Off.
The feminist movement continued to gain strength. The Women’s Alliance, a political party comprised entirely of women, was formed and followed by a rise in the number of females elected to parliament. The Women’s Alliance was represented in parliament in 1983, just four years after the United Nations declared all women should have the right to vote. The UN made this announcement at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
One year after the UN’s CEDAW declaration, a major power shift occurred. In 1980, Iceland elected the world’s first female president in a democratic society. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became head of the state, beating out her three male opponents. She would go on to run the country for four terms (1980-1996). Finnbogadóttir was named UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Languages in 1998.
Another key step in Iceland’s path toward gender equality came when parental leave laws were passed in the year 2000. Today, the mother and father each get three months of leave, which they are not allowed to transfer, and an additional three months that either parent can take. That is nine months altogether. Parents get impressive financial support – 80 percent of their salary or up to a maximum ISK350,000 (about $3,120 USD) per month.
The result? Men take their parental leave too. Yes, men spend time with their babies! Think of the bonding that must happen and how that time provides a strong base for the relationship between the child and father, in addition to child and mother. Also, this system would encourage a good balance of parental responsibility, starting right from infancy.
But Even Iceland is Not Perfect
With all of that being said, Iceland still has aways to go. There are still significantly fewer female managers than males, states The Guardian; women are only 22 percent of this job category. And, yes, my heart sinks as I type these words: Icelandic women earn 14 percent less than men, on average.
In trying to come to terms with how this gender wage gap can still exist, in spite of the legal strides that have been made there, many reasons can be given. Perhaps women take more of the lower-earning positions there. Or, maybe it all comes down to gender bias? Plus, are Icelandic women taught not to boast about their accomplishments, which would mean they wouldn’t ask for raises at work?
The Takeaway from Iceland on Feminism
What we can surmise though, on a brighter note, is that women CAN make a difference when it comes to politics and society, just as they did with the grassroots campaign on October 24, 1975. We saw this back in 1912 when Nellie McClung and other leaders in Manitoba’s suffragette movement formed the Political Equality League and spread their message at halls across the province to anyone who would listen. In 1916, Manitoba was the first Canadian province to provide full suffrage rights to women.
By looking to the past for lessons and inspiration, from Iceland, Canada, and other countries, hopefully, we can take strides toward gender equality to one day make it a global reality. At least I can hope so. Without hope, what do we have?