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7 Icelandic Women Who Changed the Way We See the World

Iceland Activism
by KT Browne Mar 4, 2018

Iceland has been making the news and, for once, it’s not only because of tourism or cheap air fare. Just this past January, the country made international headlines after passing a law that forces employers and businesses to pay women and men equal amounts for the same job. The legislation is the first of its kind in the world, and a radical step towards promoting gender equality. What better way to commemorate Women’s History Month and this fantastic step forward than by remembering the Icelandic women who made powerful impacts on the way we see the world?

1. Briet Bjarnhedinsdottir

Briet Bjarnhedinsdottir was an advocate for women’s liberation and suffrage in the early 1900s. She founded Iceland’s first Women’s Society, and its first women’s magazine, Kvennablaðið, which became a political tool to motivate women to demand voting rights. She also served for a time on Reykjavík city council. Throughout her life, Breit wrote a number of articles advocating for women’s rights and never let her voice go unheard; she often held speeches in downtown Reykjavík, which always drew crowds and open ears. In 1907, she founded the first women’s suffrage society in Iceland, called Kvenréttindafélag Íslands (it still exists today). But Breit didn’t stop there. She also served as president from 1907 to 1911, and from 1912 to 1927. Breit changed the way Iceland viewed women forever, and in no small part because of her work, grit, and sheer determination, Iceland is now a world leader when it comes to women’s rights.

2. Sigríður Tómasdóttir

Sigríður Tómasdóttir is considered Iceland’s first environmental campaigner and instilled a deeply-rooted sense of appreciation for the environment in the people of Iceland through her work. She grew up on a farm in the south of Iceland with a massive waterfall just outside her doorstep (Gullfoss). At the turn of the 19th century, Sigríður’s father was approached by foreign investors who wanted to dam the waterfall for hydroelectric production. Though Sigríður’s father turned down the offer, financers still threatened to “rent” the waterfall and do what they wished with it. Sigríður fought for the waterfall, urging the financers and businessmen to not interfere with nature, even threatening to throw herself into the waterfall if they did not leave it alone. Fortunately, Sigríður’s message was heard, the contract was annulled, and Gullfoss became property of the people of Iceland. Later, in 1979, the waterfall became a national park, and before Sigríður died, a new law was developed that forbade foreign nationals from purchasing state-owned waterfalls. Sigríður’s fight for Gullfoss has inspired changes in laws to protect Iceland’s beautiful environment.

3. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first democratically-elected female president in Iceland (and Europe) from 1980 to 1996. As a single mother and divorcee, Vigdís stood for women’s independence and did so unashamed. That her lifestyle contrasted with what was customary at the time not only shocked the world but introduced Iceland to new ideas of womanhood and freedom. As a president, Vigdís was hugely popular — she was reelected three times and served in office for sixteen years. In office, she promoted the education and empowerment of girls, the funding and celebration of the arts, and the protection of Icelandic nature. She also oversaw a handful of legislation that made these goals possible. After her presidency, Vigdís formed the Council of Women World Leaders in 1996, and it remains today one of the UN’s leading foundations promoting female empowerment and gender equality around the world.

4. Jóhanna Sigurðadóttir

Jóhanna Sigurðadóttir was the first female prime minister of Iceland from 2009 to 2012. She is known for pulling Iceland out of a devastating financial crisis, and for being the world’s first openly gay head of state. Her election to office was a huge step in the right direction for Iceland, whose attitude in regard to the LGBTQIA+ community changed dramatically from hostility to tolerance and celebration. Iceland is, after all, one of the first countries to recognize same-sex marriage, a move that was spearheaded by Jóhanna’s government (she and her partner became one of the first couples in Iceland to have an official same-sex marriage). Jóhanna was also Iceland’s longest-serving member of Parliament, holding office from 2009 to 2013. In 2010, her government banned strip clubs, paying for nudity in restaurants, and other means of employers profiting from employees’ nudity, the first ban of its kind in a Western democratic country.

5. Björk Guðmundsdóttir

Björk Guðmundsdót, otherwise known as Björk, is one of the most well-known Icelandic singer-songwriters. Her prolific career has spanned over four decades, during which she’s developed a highly unique style of music. But before Björk’s fame rose to what it is today, she was known as the lead singer of the alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, back in the 80s. When she embarked on a solo career in 1993, the success continued. Since then, she’s released a number of albums to critical acclaim (and awards), won the award for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. Björk has reshaped and redefined the terrain of femme artistry through her work’s genre-bending and psychedelic aesthetic.

6. Arna Ýr Jónsdóttir

Arna Ýr Jónsdóttir is an Icelandic model, beauty pageant titleholder, and pole vaulter. She was crowned Miss Iceland in 2015 and represented her country at Miss World 2015. In 2017, she won Miss Universe Iceland. Last year, she made international headlines after withdrawing from Miss Grand International 2016 because she was asked to lose weight. To this request, Arna replied, “If the owner of the contest really wants me to lose weight and doesn’t like me the way I am, then he doesn’t deserve to have me.” Arna is now considered a symbol of female strength and body acceptance. Her response also prompted a greater social media backlash against harassment, and once the dust settled, Arna was even hired by Nike as a brand representative. Oh yeah, and she’s only 22.

7. Katrín Jakobsdóttir

No list of Icelandic women who changed the way we see the world would be complete without its most recent mover and shaker, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. As Iceland’s prime minister of nearly three months and the country’s second female leader in a decade, Katrín has already made some dramatic changes in the way the country and the world views women. She is a passionate feminist who has been pushing for tougher legislation in regards to women’s pay; just last month, Iceland passed a law that forces employers to pay men and women the same amount of money for the same job — a powerful step in eliminating gender inequality in Iceland, and an important wake-up call to the rest of the world. In Katrín’s words, “If we really want to achieve gender equality we need to do radical things.” Katrín is also an advocate for the treatment of sexual offenses, LGBTQIA+ rights, and is passionate about welcoming more refugees to Iceland.

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