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The Most Feminist Place in the World | The Nation

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The Most Feminist Place in the World

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Despite the damp autumn weather, at 2:25 pm on October 25 some 50,000 Icelandic women and their supporters—nearly one-sixth of Iceland’s population—left their jobs or homes and marched down the main street in Reykjavik. The walkout, called Women Strike Back, was a call for “women’s freedom from male violence and the closing of the gender pay gap.” Official statistics show that Icelandic women earn 65.65 percent of men’s average wages. And, as one right-wing city councilwoman texted to her Left-Green Movement colleague Sóley Tómasdóttir, after being chastised for trying to schedule a meeting at 3 o’clock that day, 2:25 pm was the time “when we have already worked for our wages” (that is, 65.65 percent of a regular 9-to-5 workday). More a women’s holiday than a strike—most in attendance had permission from their workplaces or were on a school holiday—it was a reminder of the more radical women’s day off in 1975 and a similar walkout in 2005. As Auður Styrkársdóttir, director of the Icelandic women’s history archives, says, “Now it’s a thing that Icelandic women do.”

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Janet Elise Johnson
Janet Elise Johnson teaches political science and women's studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. She...

This walkout happened two weeks after Iceland was officially proclaimed, for the second year in a row, the most feminist place in the world, the top scorer on the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Rankings, followed by three other Nordic countries: Norway, Finland and Sweden. Iceland, by 2010, according to the report’s authors, had closed 85 percent of the achievement gap between women and men—proving itself to have more gender equality than 133 other countries measured in the study, including the United States (which jumped from thirty-first on the list to nineteenth).

When the walkout was held five years ago, it was a very different moment in Iceland’s history. Icelanders were among the wealthiest people in the world, engaging in frenzied spending. They were buying up luxury goods and were sold mortgages in foreign currency, brokered on faith in the continued boom in Iceland’s currency. As the 2005 event organizer noted about 2010, “It’s a changed society”—more equal but much poorer and awaiting potentially devastating budget cuts in 2011.

The story of Iceland’s economic rise and fall is long and complex, but it was driven by a faction called the Locomotive Group, which enthusiastically embraced Milton Friedman’s version of neoliberalism and then overturned the political order to ensure its success. The most prominent member was Davíð Oddsson, who became the head of the leading party, the center-right Independence Party, then prime minister for an unprecedentedly long time (1991–2004) and, finally, chair of the Central Bank (2005–09).

As in the United States, where almost all hedge-fund managers are men, Iceland’s Locomotive Group is a masculine enterprise. Overwhelmingly constituted of men, the group’s network of financiers and policy-makers created an environment where short-term profits trumped long-term growth and accountability to investors and citizens. Many lived it up in fast cars, fancy suits, bars and, according to Feminist Society of Iceland spokeswoman Halla Gunnarsdóttir, strip clubs. They made the argument that only men, not women, have what it takes, the bravado to take enormous risks.

The gender pay gap that persists in Iceland is partly a legacy of the outsize salaries raked in by men in the financial sector during the boom. But the country’s unique and powerful feminist traditions ensured that it would have a markedly different response to the financial crisis from countries like the United States, where the role of masculinity has gone largely unexamined—with nary a mention in the newly released report from the Financial Crisis Commission on the causes of the meltdown.

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When I traveled to Iceland this past summer, people—from a tour guide to those I met on the street—casually referred to those who colluded with the Locomotive Group as “the men who stole all our money.” This common wisdom was recently confirmed by a study by prominent gender studies scholars from the University of Iceland, commissioned by Parliament. Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir and Gyda Margrét Pétursdóttir found that not only were a small network of men looking out only for themselves—rewarding themselves with the booty and protecting one another with unsound loans—but that the enterprise was being justified by calling upon mythical masculine ideals. As Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson put it in his 2005 speech “How to Succeed in Modern Business: Lessons From the Icelandic Voyage,” the nation’s “successful entrepreneurs” were heirs to the daring, adventurous Viking tradition.

The casino economy also began to transform women’s roles. In this society where virtually all women work outside the home for most of their adult lives, more women began to stay home. According to the director of the Center for Gender Equality, the new bankers’ long hours meant their wives had to assume nearly all domestic responsibilities. The bankers’ high salaries, moreover, made it harder for their partners to “justify” their working, something Icelandic women had not previously had to do. As explained by Thorgerdur and Gyda Margrét, men were cast as the stars, with women as underpaid stagehands.

Given Iceland’s active women’s movement and the gendered lenses through which Icelanders saw the crisis, it is unsurprising that in the spring of 2009, when the government collapsed, Icelanders voted into office Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir—the country’s first female prime minister and the world’s first openly gay top leader—and the parties on the left that were the successors to the Women’s Alliance, a party of women for women. In 1999 the Women’s Alliance fractured and its members were absorbed by two umbrella parties, both of which adopted gender quotas for party lists and all elected bodies within the party. The Women’s Alliance had been a voice of reason during the privatization frenzy in 1998–2002, advocating keeping at least one national bank. In the wake of the 2008 collapse, people called for “feminine values” to replace the Viking hypermasculinity.

Most Western industrialized democracies have significantly closed the gap between women and men on measures of educational attainment and health, but what makes Iceland extraordinary, even among its Nordic peers, is the political empowerment of women. The women who make up almost half of the members of Parliament are following in the footsteps of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s president from 1980 to 1996, the first democratically elected woman head of state in the world.

Iceland’s left government—a coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement—has passed a flurry of woman-friendly policies. A 2009 law, modeled on one in Sweden, criminalizes the purchase of sex, while continuing to protect women prostitutes from prosecution. Another closed down the strip clubs and eliminated lap dancing. A March 2010 law extended a 40 percent quota for women on most government boards of mid-size and large businesses. Other legislation last year included legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing access to donor eggs and sperm for single women and gay couples. Longer-term achievements of Iceland’s feminist movement have also included generous government-provided parental leave to be shared by women and men and subsidized high-quality preschools and day care, which allow most parents to combine parenting and work.

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By 2 o’clock on Women Strike Back day, the preschool down the street from the US Embassy was half empty of children when Hrönn Sveinsdóttir, pushing a double stroller carrying her 7-month-old girl, arrived to pick up her 3-year-old daughter, Nina. In the women’s strike of 1975 her mother had walked off her job at a bank despite condemnation and threats from her bosses and older women co-workers. Hrönn represents a new generation of feminists, having made a documentary film about her uncharacteristic entrance in a Miss Iceland beauty competition.

At 3 o’clock women began to crowd down Laugavegur, the main shopping street, passing by a bed decorated with pictures of women and men, boys and girls, with the provocative sign Who Is More Likely to Rape or to Be Raped? At the bottom of the hill, activists were dancing to Dolly Parton’s working woman’s anthem “9 to 5” and wearing huge blue- and pink-lensed “gender glasses,” which Jóhanna, as everyone calls the prime minister, had bought for all her ministers. For an hour, people continued to pack the street and then spread up a hill, the largest public space in 101 Reykjavik.

Standing in the freezing rain stood a crowd made up of families, often three generations—grandmothers, their daughters and their daughters’ children. Some were self-identified feminist activists, such as Hildur Fjóla Antonsdóttir, a member of the Feminist Association of Iceland; she held a segment of the blocklong red scarf that activists had stretched from the high court to the low court to call attention to the gap between the 270 rapes reported to activists in 2009 and the seven convictions. Most were like Alsa Sigurðardóttir, who does not call herself a feminist but who nonetheless came out with her 13-year-old daughter “to show that we [women] stand together, and this is ridiculous, this difference in wages.” Even the country’s small population of immigrant women—including a kindergarten teacher and a bartender I met taking cover in a nearby bus stop—were represented.

On a bandstand, activists sang songs from the earlier women’s liberation period of the movement and spoke about the continuing wage gap and the inadequacies of the government’s response to violence against women. Rashida Manjoo, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, spoke about how participation in the march showed “the transformative potential of solidarity,” which was “creating awareness for the next generation.” Speakers also included Sigrún Pálína Ingvarsdóttir, who had accused the former bishop of Iceland of sexual assault and been forced abroad but was vindicated by a similar claim by the bishop’s daughter.

Activists had invited rock musicians to sing a tongue-in-cheek song about how a girlfriend had gone to school and become a “fucking feminist.” In the crowd, three college-age women carried a sign with the message We Want More Judges in High Heels. At a related conference the day before the walkout, activists from Stigamot, the rape crisis center in Reykjavik, gave Knut Storberget, Norwegian justice minister, black boxer-briefs with the words I Am Responsible written down the crotch.

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