Single mom, theatre artist…and the first woman in the world to be elected head of state in a national election! Meet Vigdís
If Iceland can do it, so can we!
Here in the U.S. we came close to electing our first female president. But as we all know, we are not playing horseshoes and close doesn’t count; Hillary Clinton did not emerge as the winning candidate. And whatever you may think or feel about that, one thing is for certain: after ‘electing’ the 44th man in a row to hold the highest position in our democracy, we have just sealed a fate featuring four more years of patriarchy.
Men have been elected to serve as president for the past 227 years. Apparently it’s just too soon to trust this position to a woman.
Luckily, the rest of the world doesn’t feel the same. Today we have strong female leaders like Angela Merkel and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. And in 1980, the world watched as Iceland elected their first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. Vigdís is pronounced Vig-deesh – and don’t worry about her last name, as 1) it’s hard to pronounce and 2) it is actually Icalandic custom to refer to people – even their presidents - by their first names, so she is simply ''President Vigdis'' to her people.
And while I want to salute Iceland heartily for electing Vigdís – and let’s just call her Viggy, she’s a theatre person at heart, so I doubt she will mind - I do want to point out that the country is considered the world's oldest parliamentary democracy, with their Parliament, called the Althingi, established in 930.
So….it still took Iceland 1050 years to elect a woman! If those calculations hold true for the United States, then…well, shit. We were born in 1776…by 2826 we should be ready for a female president.
Just hold on for 800 more years, ladies!
But here’s why that may not be true: women like Viggy have paved the way for us. They have done some of the hard work, so that we can have the rights and privileges we enjoy today. They fought for us. And we will not forget them. We cannot give up, and we must learn from the past. With that in mind, here’s more about the woman who ran against three men in the 1980 election…and won.
Vigdís taught French and French drama at the University, and held French courses on RÚV, Icelandic state television. With a love of the arts, she found others who shared her interest in experimental theatre. She worked with the Reykjavík Theatre Company in the 50s and 60s, and during the summer, she worked as a tour guide eventually becoming the artistic director of the theatre company (later the City Theatre) in 1972. In 1971 at the age of 42 she adopted a daughter, making her the first single woman in Iceland who was allowed to adopt a child.
At this time in her life, while juggling her jobs as a single mom and artistic director, Viggy also participated in numerous rallies held to protest against the U.S. military presence in Iceland. And in 1975, the International Women’s Year, she joined together with her fellow countrywomen in a massive effort to show how undervalued women’s work is. On October 24th, together with 90% of all women in Iceland, she went on strike. The Guardian describes the day:
“Iceland's men were barely coping. Most employers did not make a fuss of the women disappearing but rather tried to prepare for the influx of overexcited youngsters who would have to accompany their fathers to work. Some went out to buy sweets and gathered pencils and papers in a bid to keep the children occupied. Sausages, the favourite ready meal of the time, sold out in supermarkets and many husbands ended up bribing older children to look after their younger siblings. Schools, shops, nurseries, fish factories and other institutions had to shut down or run at half-capacity…For many (women) it was a wake-up call...It was a spur to action and many feel that the solidarity women showed that day paved the way for the election five years later of Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world's first democratically elected female president.” (The day the women went on strike, The Guardian)
Vigdís describes this as a turning point for her and the women she rallied with on this day: "After October 24, women thought it was time a woman became president," she says. "The finger was pointed at me and I accepted the challenge."
Whether it was the activist in her or the artist in her, she appealed to enough citizens to pull ahead of her opponents in the 1980 presidential race in Iceland, becoming the first woman in the world to be elected as head of state in a democratic election – but please note, that the race was close, and she won by a narrow margin. Sound familiar?
She has said of the election, “The Icelandic people were very courageous to elect a woman.” They were courageous because it was a change from tradition – a tradition that was upheld for more than a thousand years!
The courage paid off. Change paid off. She became very popular in her office, and was reelected three times, until, in 1996 she decided not to run for reelection. While she was president, she took an active role as environmental activist and fought for Icelandic language and culture, acting as a cultural ambassador in promoting the country. In 1986, she hosted a crucial summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Her motto became: 'Never let the women down' and she worked specifically to promote girls' education.
So - if you think that a rally can’t change things, think again. The 1975 Women’s Strike in Iceland motivated not only Vigdís, but an entire country!
She went on to become founding chair of the Council of Women World Leaders at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and then president of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology. Since 1998, has been UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for languages.She is also a member of the Fondation Chirac's honour committee, which was launched in 2008 by former French president Jacques Chirac to promote world peace.
So today, on President’s day, I honor YOU, Vigdís! Thank you for all you have done, for all you do! You are what a president should be: supportive of all your people, speaking for those who have not historically had a voice in governance, working to maintain peace, and holding a true understanding of the value of the arts in our world. You are an inspiration to me.
Happy President’s Day, Vigdís!
Sources / More reading: