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.”