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.”
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.