Another storm is sweeping into Reykjavík on this dark and cold late-winter evening, but in the downstairs hall of the century-old Hannesarholt cultural house, several dozen Icelanders are basking in the warmth of their country’s rich literary heritage. The lecturer tonight is a small woman with a large personality. Her enthusiastic two-hour presentation, punctuated with dramatic readings, wry humor, and songs, traces the evolution of the love story across the centuries. The emphasis is on the evolving role of women and the emergence of feminist sensibilities. The crowd is thrilled by the literary depth and intellectual breadth of the evening and rewards Katrín Jakobsdóttir with a standing ovation, which she graciously accepts before heading back to her day job—as prime minister of Iceland.
Energetic and impassioned, determined to lead not merely with legislation but with lessons, Jakobsdóttir is the first elected head of state who comes from a new breed of Nordic left-wing parties that link democratic socialism, environmentalism, feminism, and anti-militarism. She is, as well, one of a number of young left-leaning women who have emerged as prime ministers and party leaders in countries around the world at the same time that the United States has been coming to grips with the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of Donald Trump. While the United States wrestles with retrograde leadership—and the fantasy that a country can only be made great by doing something “again”—other countries are electing women who, in the words of Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, are “channeling today’s zeitgeist.”
“Women represent change, because they’re from a historically unrepresented group, and younger women represent a generational shift as well,” says Liswood, who for decades has studied the role of women in politics and government. “It’s almost as if everyone has permission to step away from the traditional ways of thinking. Society has changed sufficiently to talk about what is possible.” That embrace of possibility stands in stark contrast to the hidebound and reactionary messages sent by Trump’s election and his approach to governing. It also offers perspectives on how to forge a new politics that might give the United States permission to step away from its own traditional ways of thinking. There will always be those who embrace an American-exceptionalist dogma that insists there is nothing to learn from the rest of the world—and even less to learn from a remote island nation with a population that’s dwarfed even by small American states—but Iceland has captured a lot of imaginations. When I tweeted about the new prime minister’s left-wing politics and agenda after she assembled her coalition government last fall, I got 72,000 likes—and a lot of responses from Americans asking “How can I move there?” or, better yet, “Can we have one of these please?”
Settled into a chair in the modest conference room outside her office in the former Danish prison that serves as Iceland’s Stjornarrad (Cabinet House), Jakobsdóttir acknowledges the sudden interest in the country’s political progression. “I can understand,” says the literary critic who became prime minister. “It’s a little different.”
The international press has referred to Jakobsdóttir as “the anti-Trump.” And as she races to implement Iceland’s sweeping pay-equity law (quoting John Stuart Mill and talking about “the inequality that has the deepest roots in us all”); charges the head of Iceland’s largest conservation NGO with running the environment ministry; and discourses knowledgeably about the economic and social changes that will extend from automation, it’s easy to understand why.
But the “anti-Trump” label draws an eye-roll from Jakobsdóttir. She isn’t preoccupied by a desire to square off against the US president, either on Twitter or on the global stage. She’s much more interested in showing what Iceland can do, and in establishing a new model for what a leader might look and act like in the 21st century. When she appeared at the One Planet Summit in Paris last December—just months after Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement of 2015—Jakobsdóttir didn’t spend her time griping about US obstructionism; she came to announce her country’s plans for “going further” than the goals of the accord. Promising “a carbonless Iceland in 2040,” she cheekily proposed a race to ditch fossil fuels: “There are other nations making such goals, but our time schedule is ambitious, and we are going to be five years ahead of our neighbors in the Nordic countries.”
For Jakobsdóttir, politics is the art of the imaginable. Not of sweeping assertions and empty-headed certainty, mind you—she knows she’s the leader of a small country that has seen wild political mood swings since 2008, when it experienced the largest systemic banking collapse (relative to the size of its economy) of any nation in history. And she knows that the coalition government she now leads—which aligns her proudly socialist, environmentalist, feminist Left-Green Movement with a pair of center-right parties that are not particularly popular among her own party’s activist base—is an unprecedented project that is held together in no small part because of her status as the most trusted political figure in Iceland. She recognizes that politics in Iceland, and perhaps internationally, must produce smart, forward-looking alternatives to the toxic mix of right-wing populism, yearning for an unenlightened past, and lies about the future that has emerged in an age of desperate but often ill-focused anger over dead-end neoliberalism.
“We are trying to do things differently,” Jakobsdóttir says. In a world where most leaders of countries are still men, and where a good many of those men root their understandings in decades-old political models and practices, it’s worth noting that a 42-year-old feminist who embraces the #MeToo movement, recalls that “I began my political participation through demonstrations,” and gets excited about the way that grassroots movements can change politics and society is still a rarity on the global stage. “I’ve gone to one international meeting, which was the global summit in Paris,” Jakobsdóttir says. “And I noticed that there were a lot fewer women than men. So I was like, ‘OK, the numbers are not too high for us right now. We’ve got to change that.’”
Will we? “Oh, yes, I think that’s doable.”
Jakobsdóttir has a thing for the word “doable.” She uses it a lot—and with a refreshing confidence that not just her own small country but the world can and will be transformed, politically, socially, and culturally, for the better.
Mobilizing Iceland to address climate change and then leveraging that mobilization to influence the rest of the world? “It’s huge, but it’s doable,” Jakobsdóttir says. “I can already see that the other Nordic countries are saying [that they want to be] carbon-neutral by 2045—so it’s a little bit of a race. And you can’t do this just by reducing emissions. We also have to change the way we are using lands, restoring wetlands—really change the way we think. But, yes, we can do that.”
Jakobsdóttir is, in fact, doing just that: not merely capitalizing on Iceland’s wealth of renewable resources, which she admits provide “a head start,” but also organizing unexpected groups to be part of this new thinking—such as the Icelandic sheep farmers who propose to offset carbon emissions by investing in topsoil and wetlands reclamation, planting trees, and switching to renewable fuels. “The sheep farmers are ready, really, to cooperate with the government on how we can make sheep farming carbon-neutral in Iceland in a few years,” Jakobsdóttir says. “You never know if you’re going to achieve a goal or not, but I’m really excited about this, because I think it’s doable.”
What else is doable? “Closing the [gender] pay gap is doable,” she replies. “We have said that we are going to implement the equal-pay standard in five years.”
Putting Iceland’s money to work “for the people in this country”? Yes, that’s also “doable.” When talk turns to economic issues, the prime minister cites Thomas Piketty, the French economist and author of the 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and holds forth on the connections between austerity policies and inequality. Jakobsdóttir’s party campaigned on a promise not just to hike taxes on large companies and the rich but to make the country’s financial system more responsive to human needs. The Left-Green Movement wants to establish Iceland—which had a prime minister step down in 2016 after his family’s secret offshore holdings were revealed in the Panama Papers—as one of the “pioneering countries in which currency speculation and short-term profiting off of capital flows is taxed, thus discouraging speculative capital transfers.” Doable? “Yes, well, we of course are in this unique position [where the government owns] two out of three banks,” explains the leader of a country that responded very differently to the global financial and economic meltdown of 2007–08 than did the United States—by jailing bankers and taking a stake in major financial institutions.
“That certainly helps,” I admit. “That certainly helps,” Jakobsdóttir repeats, with robust laughter, but then she adds that Iceland, by taking advantage of its renewed economic vitality, can get to work “restoring or rebuilding this public infrastructure.” That’s a big deal, because, after too many punitive cuts during the turmoil that followed the banking crisis, the government she leads is “really founded on the mission to rebuild the public structure in Iceland.”
Jakobsdóttir argues that a lot of things are “doable” if political leaders decide to break long-established patterns. In many countries, people have been beaten down by neoliberal austerity policies that have blurred the lines between the traditional parties. There’s a search, Jakobsdóttir insists, for a politics that addresses human needs rather than always bending to the demands of bankers and distant investors. Even the more conservative parties in her unlikely coalition government recognize this, she insists, which is why they’ll be able to keep working together.
Jakobsdóttir sounds a little like Bernie Sanders when she starts talking about pulling together people of varying political views and ideologies to achieve fundamental goals. And that’s no coincidence: When I mention that Sanders has been talking about the changes in Iceland (“We must follow the example of our brothers and sisters in Iceland and demand equal pay for equal work now, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality,” the Vermont senator wrote on Facebook in January), the prime minister lights up. “I’m a fan of him. Yes, yes, of course I’m a fan,” she says. “I really liked his message when he was campaigning, trying to become the presidential candidate for the Democrats. He was talking, really, about Nordic welfare. It was not what we would call ‘radical left’ in Iceland; it was traditional Nordic left-wing welfare that he was talking about, with the emphasis on equality—which I have been talking about for years. For years.”
Jakobsdóttir may be the youngest female leader in Europe, but she is not new to politics. “I’m a left-wing person. My parents were left-wing; my grandparents were left-wing. So there’s a strong left-wing tradition in my family,” she explains. “But I was never registered to a political party until I found this party that was also environmental.”
The Left-Green Movement emerged in the late 1990s, following one of the endless reshufflings of political parties in this true multiparty democracy (even Iceland’s Pirate Party, one of the most robust of the world’s new wave of tech-savvy political groupings, has a parliamentary presence here). The Left-Greens merged old-school socialists with young environmentalists, a combination that drew the party into a bitter battle against a massive, wilderness-threatening Alcoa smelter project in the early and mid-2000s. Steingrímur Sigfússon, the first Left-Green leader, condemned the corporate-friendly, center-right government in Iceland during that period for “crawling on their knees in front of American aluminum moguls.”
Jakobsdóttir, then a young scholar developing a reputation as an expert in Nordic crime fiction, was inspired to battle a multinational corporation on behalf of Iceland’s rivers and streams. “I wouldn’t say I was the most radical activist in town, but, yes, I began my political participation through demonstrations because of a big hydroelectric plant in the east of Iceland. It was probably the most controversial project that we have had in environmental issues in Iceland. That was the reason why I entered the Left-Greens, because of this struggle.”
Pushed into leadership by the party’s youth wing when she was still in her 20s, Jakobsdóttir became a member of Iceland’s parliament at 31, a high-ranking government minister at 33, and the party’s leader at 37. “You can do new politics in old parties, and you can do old politics in new parties,” she says, but her emphasis has been on the new. In particular, “this whole ideology of the sustainable element: That really was a key factor for me. Looking at things from the side of the environment, from the social side, from the economic side—I thought, ‘This is something new and important for me.’” She was also drawn to the Left-Greens’ embrace of feminism as a defining element of their politics. “I think women work differently in politics than men,” Jakobsdóttir says. “They use different methods, usually. Of course, you can’t generalize too much. But, still, at least I—as a great enthusiast when it comes to gender equality—I have said I don’t want to [mimic the approaches of men] in order to achieve something in politics.”
Iceland has had women leaders before. In 1980, theater director Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the world’s first directly elected female president, surfing a wave of feminist energy that extended from an epic 1975 strike, in which 90 percent of Icelandic women walked off their jobs to teach a lesson about the contributions they were making to society. In 2009, Jakobsdóttir and the Left-Green Movement joined a coalition government led by the center-left Social Democratic Party’s Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland’s first female prime minister and the first openly lesbian head of government in the world. The country, which in the 1980s and ’90s had a politically influential Women’s List party, has a long history of enacting “policies that have actually changed the culture here in Iceland,” says Jakobsdóttir. The prime minister, the mother of three young children, also makes note of Iceland’s well-established “legislation on parental leave—where the father is obliged to take three months, and the mother is obliged to take three months—and it really changed the attitude of fathers toward their role in the bringing up of children.” Indeed, in December The New York Times referred to Iceland as “the most gender-egalitarian country in the world.”
A relentless champion of her country, Jakobsdóttir can recount all the history and all the statistics. She admires her predecessors, especially Finnbogadóttir: “I was 4 years old when she was elected in 1980. When she left office in 1996, and then there was a man elected, I heard a kid asking, ‘Can a man become president?’ Think of the culture change in that!” For her part, Finnbogadóttir delights in the progress; when we met, she told me that “now it is becoming natural that women serve as prime ministers. It is natural that they become ministers. This is a step forward, for your daughter and for my granddaughter.”
This is true, Jakobsdóttir says, but it is important to understand that the cultural change is still in its early stages. “I could sense that when I said that I wanted to become prime minister. A lot of people said, ‘Whoa! Aren’t you being too pleased with yourself?’ Nobody would say that to a man.”
Always on the lookout for a teachable moment, the new leader of Iceland has a ready response for those who read too much into her rise to power. “When people say to me, ‘Now you’re prime minister, and isn’t that a sign that Iceland is just a paradise north for gender equality?,’ I say, ‘Well, we would need 30 women, at least, in a row to become prime minister if I were to say yes to that’—because we had 30 men before me. I’m just number two.”
Even so, the woman whose appearance in an old rock-music video still circulates on the Internet—the musicians she appeared with in the group Bang Gang went on to become some of the most influential figures in Icelandic music—acknowledges that it’s kind of a big deal that she’s now prime minister. “My party has a very strong work ethic,” she explains. “Even though nothing is happening, when we’re in opposition, we still say, ‘OK, we’re going to organize 14 meetings around the country during January, where we will probably be stuck in the snow for most of the time.’ And then we go and do it. I didn’t really realize [the importance of] this until I listened to my husband saying, ‘You can’t really run a party unless you have the patience to go out there and go to a zillion meetings where there are only five people and you are always very happy about it.’”
In the past, Jakobsdóttir was always very happy about organizing rallies and election campaigns and speaking truth to power. But now that she’s the one in power, she’s hoping to apply that work ethic not merely “to change something” in Iceland but to set an example of how politics could evolve in the 21st century. When I suggest that going from getting stuck in snow on the way to a meeting with five people to implementing a pay-equity law, overcoming austerity, and unveiling ambitious climate goals as the nation’s chief executive isn’t too bad, a broad grin crosses her face.
“Not too bad,” she echoes, laughing. Then she pauses, reflecting back to the start of a long conversation. “You began by asking, ‘Can you learn something from a small country?’” she reminds me, looking around the office where so many men—most of them older and much more conservative than she—once held sway, and where Katrín Jakobsdóttir is now the prime minister. “I think this is something you can learn from a small country: Sometimes, we can do this.”