Interesting Facts

The day Iceland's women went on strike

Icelandic women went on strike for equal rights on October 24, 1975. 90% of women walked out of their jobs and homes, effectively shutting down the entire country. The men were struggling to keep up. The following year, Parliament passed a law requiring equal pay. Iceland elected the world's first female President five years later. Iceland now has the highest gender equality rate in the world.
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Icelandic women went on strike forty years ago, refusing to work, cook, or watch the kids for a day. A turning point in the nation’s perception of women, it propelled Iceland to the forefront of the fight for equality.

One young boy in Iceland was horrified when Ronald Reagan was elected US President. When he saw the news on television, he exclaimed to his mother, “He can’t be president – he’s a man!”

Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, had been elected president of Iceland the previous summer. It was November 1980. The boy was unaware that Vigdis, who goes by her first name in Iceland, was the first democratically elected female president in Europe and the entire world.

Since Vigdis held the presidency for 16 years, years that helped Iceland establish itself as “the world’s most feminist country,” it’s possible that many more Icelandic children came to believe that being president was a woman’s role.

But Vigdis maintains that if not for the events of one bright day, the 24th of October 1975, when 90% of the nation’s women decided to strike in protest of their importance, she would never have become president.

They took to the streets in their thousands to protest for equal rights with men rather than going to work, doing chores around the house, or caring for children.

Vigdis considers it to be a turning point in history. In Iceland, it is known as the Women’s Day Off.

“What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,” she claims. The nation was completely paralyzed, and many men had their eyes opened.

Many fathers were forced to take their children to work because banks, factories, some shops, schools, and nurseries had to close. There have been stories of men stocking their desks with candy and crayons to occupy the throngs of overexcited kids. Because they are simple to prepare and beloved by kids, sausages were in such high demand that stores ran out.

For some fathers, it served as a baptism by fire, which may help to explain why the day has also been referred to as the Long Friday.

“We heard children playing in the background while the newsreaders read the news on the radio, it was a great thing to listen to, knowing that the men had to take care of everything,” recalls Vigdis.

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Photo credit: KIRSTIE BREWER

The phone was frequently answered by husbands who had stayed at home to care for the children as radio presenters called homes in rural areas of the country to determine how many rural women were taking the day off.

A framed black-and-white photo of the largest rally, which was held in Reykjavik’s Downtown Square and was one of more than 20 that were held across the nation, is on Vigdis’ lap as we speak in her home.

Amidst the 25,000 women who gathered to sing, hear speeches, and discuss what could be done is Vigdis, her mother, and her three-year-old daughter. A lot of people showed up for an island with only 220,000 residents.

She was the artistic director of the Reykjavik Theatre Company at the time, and she and her female coworkers skipped dress rehearsals to join the protest.

The women who were gathered on the square in the bright sunshine felt a strong sense of unity and solidarity, according to Vigdis. The theme song from the BBC television show Shoulder to Shoulder, which was about the Suffragette movement and had previously aired in Iceland that year, was played by a brass band.

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Sticker distributed to participants – reading “Women’s Day Off”. Photo credit: WOMEN’S HISTORY ARCHIVES

Iceland was the third country after New Zealand and Finland to grant women the right to vote, in 1915. But only nine women were elected to parliament over the following 60 years. The fact that there were only three female MPs in office in 1975, or 5% of the parliament, as opposed to between 16% and 23% in the other Nordic nations, was a major source of resentment.

The Red Stockings, a radical women’s movement founded in 1970, were the ones who first proposed the idea of a strike, but some Icelandic women found it to be too confrontational.

“The Red Stockings movement had already caused quite a stir for their attack against traditional views of women – especially among older generations of women whom had tried to master the art of being a perfect housewife and homemaker,” says Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir, senior lecturer in history at the University of Iceland.

However, after being renamed “Women’s Day Off,” the strike received almost complete support, including strong backing from the unions.

According to Ragnheidur, “the event’s schedule itself reflected the emphasis that had been placed on bringing together women from all social and political backgrounds.”

Women’s suffrage around the world

Iceland was not the first country to give women the right to vote, but it was well ahead of the curve.

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A woman votes in Russia, 1917. Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

A housewife, two MPs, a representative of the women’s movement, and a woman worker were among the speakers at the Reykjavik rally.

Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdottir, head of the union for women cleaning and working in hospitals and schools’ kitchens and laundries, made the closing remarks.

Despite not being accustomed to public speaking, Audur Styrkarsdottir, director of Iceland’s Women’s History Archives, claims that she made her name with this speech because it was so powerful and motivating. Later on, “she went on to become a member of parliament.”

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Members of the committee that prepared the “Women’s Day Off”. Photo Credit: WOMEN’S HISTORY ARCHIVES

The event’s organizers were successful in getting national newspapers, radio stations, and television stations to run stories about sex discrimination and low pay for women in the months prior to the event. Additionally, the story garnered interest internationally.

But what were the men’s thoughts on it?

According to Vigdis, “I believe at first they thought it was something humorous, but I can’t remember any of them being angry.” Men realized they would have lost support if they opposed it or refused to give women time off.

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Vigdis Finnbogadottir and Margaret Thatcher, 1982

A few reports of men acting differently from how Vigdis describes them exist. One of the main speakers’ husbands was reportedly confronted by a coworker who said, “Why do you let your woman howl like that in public places? I would never let my woman do such things.” The husband reportedly responded, “She is not the sort of woman who would ever marry a man like you.”

Even though Styrmir Gunnarsson was the co-chief editor of the conservative newspaper Morgunbladid at the time, he had no issues with the notion. He claims, “I don’t believe I’ve ever supported a strike, but I didn’t see this action as a strike.” It was a successful event that demanded equal rights.

That day, no women were employed by the paper. He recalls that none of them were required to take the day off work or forfeit their pay, and they all came back at the stroke of midnight to assist in finishing the newspaper. Though it was only 16 pages long instead of the usual 24.

At the time, “probably the majority of people undervalued this day’s impact; later, both men and women began to realize that it was a watershed,” the author claims.

He also notes that strong women have always existed in Iceland, as evidenced by the (fantasy) Icelandic Sagas.

Life in Iceland was challenging for centuries, according to Styrmir. “Our past is in our blood,” he says. Those who made it through had to be tough.

Although at least one member of the Red Stockings saw the Women’s Day Off as a missed opportunity—a nice party that didn’t really change anything—it is widely acknowledged in Iceland as a pivotal event.

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Vigdis is opposed. The following day, “things returned to normal, but with the knowledge that women are as much the pillars of society as men are,” she claims. “So many businesses and institutions were forced to shut down, which demonstrated the power and necessity of women and completely altered the way that people thought.”

Vigdis won the presidency five years later over three other men. She gained so much popularity that she won two of the three subsequent elections without a challenger.

Then came additional landmarks. In the 1983 parliamentary election, all-female shortlists were present, and the Women’s Alliance gained its first legislative seats at the same time. Paid paternity leave was made available to men in 2000, and Johanna Sigurdardottir, the first openly gay head of government in the world, became the nation’s first female prime minister in 2010. During that same year, strip clubs were outlawed.

Iceland still has a ways to go, according to Saadia Zahidi, head of Gender Initiatives at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Although there are more women than men enrolled in college, there is still a gender gap in the workforce, according to her.

Although there are more women than men enrolled in college, there is still a gender gap in the workforce, according to her.

“Women and men are almost equally represented in the labor force; in fact, women predominate in all skilled roles; however, they hold about 40% of leadership positions, and they receive lower pay than men for comparable roles.”

Nevertheless, Iceland has led the Global Gender Gap Index since 2009, according to the WEF. And if only three out of 63 members of parliament were women at the time of the Women’s Day Off, that number has increased to 28, or 44%.

The phrase “The steps so quickly fill up with snow” refers to a tendency in Iceland to relegate things to the past, according to Vigdis. But we continue to discuss that day because it was so wonderful.

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