The Most Feminist Place in the World

The Most Feminist Place in the World

After a testosterone-fueled boom and bust, the women of Iceland took charge.


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.

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.

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.”

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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