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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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Iceland’s women’s movement is one of the most active in the world, in striking contrast to the movement in countries like the United States, where it has been professionalized into social service agencies and the academy. The 1975 women’s strike—with an estimated 90 percent of women participating, according to the former President Vigdís—brought workplaces and homes to a standstill in what was, at the time, the largest rally in Iceland’s history. That first strike was so successful, according to Auður Styrkársdóttir, because activists persuaded the labor unions and the federation of employees not to punish their women employees for walking out. The 2005 walkout had 50,000 participants in Reykjavik, 60,000 nationally, with less than two months of organizing. As Edda Jónsdóttir, project leader for the 2005 event, explained, such a feat was possible because of the coordination of the large variety of organizations across the country—what she called, in jest, a “mafia,” because the women involved “know everybody.” For Guðrún Jónsdóttir, an organizer of last year’s walkout, the 2010 mobilization was “empowerment at its best.” But she added, “This is a power we will find a way to activate, I promise you. We have still a lot to 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...

Iceland is also unusual in that its feminists quickly and directly entered the political fray. In 1981—a year after Vigdís was elected to the largely ceremonial role of president—activists launched the Women’s Alliance with the goals of ending gender inequality and fostering more consensus and care in politics. After winning in municipal elections in the two largest cities, candidates associated with the party entered Parliament with a remarkable 7 percent of the vote and three out of sixty-three seats. There have been other women’s parties around the world, but few are explicitly feminist and none have been as successful.

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Feminism, or at least the notion of gender equality, has so infused politics that, a couple of years ago, women members of Parliament performed The Vagina Monologues. The woman-friendly shift at the national level has also been mirrored at the local level. Unlike in the United States, Nordic countries tend to have fewer women in local than in national government, but in May 2010 an unprecedented 39.8 percent of those elected in municipal elections were women.

As if that were not enough, after the 1975 mobilization activists also established what is now called the Center for Gender Equality, one of the most powerful such government agencies in the world. The center can fine enterprises and local and national governments for refusing to reveal gender equality data or for failing to file their required gender action plan. Last summer, according to the center’s director, Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, a committee in Akureyri—Iceland’s second-largest city, where the center is located—scoured lists of municipal salaries to assess wage gaps and found that men’s higher wages were a result of overtime and miscellaneous extra payments. The worst offenders were approached and told they could no longer earn these extras because of the city’s family policy. Two men quit, but wages were equalized.

It is these politics that paved the way to the women-friendly policies passed in 2009 and 2010. Perhaps most transformative, by September 2013 the boards of publicly owned companies as well as joint-stock companies with more than fifty employees will be required to contain at least 40 percent women (or men). Companies with more than twenty-five employees must also report the gender balance in employment in general and in management. These requirements, according to Kristín should apply to the newly nationalized banks as well as the mid-size businesses that went bankrupt.

The new government also consults with organizations like the Feminist Association of Iceland, a network of young feminists founded in 2003 with the goal of fostering “critical and feminist discussions on all levels of the Icelandic society.” Its former spokeswoman, Katrín Anna Guðmundsdóttir, joined the finance ministry in charge of starting gender budgeting in Iceland. Gender budgeting, part of the coalition platform of the Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green Movement, requires the assessment of all budgets and programs for their likely impact on women and gender equality. According to Katrín Anna, after the 2009 election a steering committee on gender budgeting recommended implementing pilot projects across all ministries, and all were funded in the 2011 budget. In contrast, according to recently published e-mails, the previous finance minister was consulting with the tycoons—and there was not even an inkling of the idea of gender budgeting. “The difference is,” says Katrín Anna, “political will and the decision to start implementing gender budgeting in Iceland.”

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Building on the call by the Women’s Alliance for a more consensus-based kind of politics—and in response to citizen anger at the crisis and the IMF-required austerity plan—the government has supported open forums and called for a constitutional assembly. There are also new feminine spaces in the economy. As the economy went into overdrive, Kristín Pétursdóttir and Halla Tomasdóttir, who had been warning of disaster from her position at the Chamber of Commerce, founded Auður Capital, a “financial service company emphasizing feminine values and social responsibility.” Rather than predicating gender equality on the similarity of women and men, Auður maintains that women have a different way of viewing the world, one that values “balance, diversity, emotional capital, risk awareness and profit with principles,” according to Auður’s spokesperson. “More and more people are coming [to believe that such values] should be embraced by the financial sector,” the group claims, pointing to the fact that Auður posted a profit in 2009 when many similar companies foundered.

And, surprising to anyone who was observing Iceland two years ago, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Jóhanna, the country’s economy appears firmly on the way to recovery.

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Iceland’s opening of the gender question stands in stark contrast with what has occurred in the United States. Recently released studies suggest that, on average over the long term, women may be more successful investors and hedge-fund managers because they have a more reasoned approach to risk. But there has been little questioning of the role played by American notions of masculinity in our bubble. And there has been little effort to bring women to power or to create institutions devoted to gender concerns, except for President Obama’s creation of the little-known White House Council on Women and Girls.

A large part of why Iceland is different in this regard is that its feminists have been able to create such broad support in society. To spearhead the 2010 walkout, organizers pulled together some twenty women’s organizations, virtually all of those active in Iceland, into an umbrella coalition. The response was overwhelming. Jón Gnarr, a stand-up comedian turned mayor of Reykjavik—the city is the largest employer of women—had sent a letter to all city employees to encourage women to participate. When asked publicly whether she was going to attend, the prime minister said yes, and that she had already published a letter in the local newspaper asking women to come out. Former President Vigdís, when I asked her whether she was going to participate, said, “Of course…I’ve always been there.” All weekend TV shows focused on the event, and the radio stations played the early women’s liberation music.

To recruit so broadly, activists made the tactical choice to use the language of “gender equality” rather than feminism. This might be less radical, but most Icelanders have been able to embrace the ideal of gender equality. To Icelandic activists, the word “feminism” is just not as important as its goals.

It’s not that Iceland has solved all of its women’s problems—the wage gap is slightly smaller now, but only because so many highly paid men lost out during the collapse. But activists have created what feminist political scientists have called a “triangle of empowerment”: strong activism, a critical contingent of feminist politicians, and feminist officials with legal authority to address inequality. Such broad-based institution-building—rather than the intergenerational infighting that seems to characterize the American feminist movement—is more likely to be successful in reducing gender inequality here in the United States.

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