Iceland is often cited as the best place on Earth for women in terms of equality, but in her first book, Eliza Reid, the country’s first lady, points out that the nation isn’t perfect. Reid, a Canadian who grew up outside Ottawa, has an outsider’s perspective that enables to her to identify what the country does really well (parental leave) and what it needs to work on (continued support for immigrants). “There are more people of foreign origin than there are senior citizens in Iceland,” she says. “We’ve made great strides in recent years, but there are still challenges, linguistic challenges, cultural challenges.”
In Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, Reid interviews women from all walks of life, allowing them to share their struggles and their stories. She spoke to the Globe and Mail about these women, and how, in the North Atlantic or north of the 49th parallel, women should be proud to take up space – and that doing so benefits everyone.
What did women in Iceland think about the fact that you were going to tell the world about Icelandic women?
It really varied. I was very fortunate that everyone I approached agreed to speak with me. I think some of them were surprised that I wanted to talk to them. Some of them said, you know, “Why me?” or “I haven’t done anything special.” But people are very proud of being from Iceland and they are very proud of Iceland’s reputation when it comes to gender equality.
Sprakkar, which means extraordinary women, is a word unique to Iceland. Why do you think it’s important to have a word that defines this type of woman?
If you can think of all the English language words that we have that we use to describe primarily or exclusively women, I can’t think of any that are positive. This is a word that we get to have ourselves and only ourselves. Although I admit that this is a word that wasn’t well-known within Iceland either. I really hope that it gets wider usage both in Iceland and in the English-speaking world because I think it’s a word that we [as women] can only use.
In 1975, Icelandic women took one day off to demonstrate their importance to society. How is it talked about today?
It’s still well-known today and recognized almost as one of the turning points in the battle for gender equality in Iceland. On this day, when 90 per cent of Iceland’s women stopped work – whether that was paid work at their jobs or unpaid work at home – the country predictably shut down. My husband was a child and he remembers because his father had to cook supper and it was horrible. His father had no idea how to cook and as a six-year-old, or however old he was, he thought this was just atrocious.
It really galvanized the movement. People realized that when they show strength in numbers, change could really happen. I should also add that there were men who were on board with this, this wasn’t a movement where women were saying, “We’ll really stick it to the men and show them what happens.” This was something just to show society how important their work was. And within five years, Iceland had elected a female president. Another huge watershed moment in terms of the battle for gender equality.
The pandemic has taken a toll on women in Canada, particularly mothers. Has it had the same sort of repercussions on Icelandic women?
The World Economic Forum in their report last year said that the pandemic had added an entire generation of years to the number of years they’re expecting, globally, that it will take to achieve gender balance – 35 years or something. So it’s had a huge impact.
In Iceland, there was an increase, for instance, in the number of women who sought shelter at women’s shelters. And those women are disproportionately of foreign origin and far disproportionately more likely to return to their abusers in the end because they don’t necessarily have the same support network afterwards. We were fortunate here that schools never closed 100 per cent. Our kids, for instance, went every day, but at different times and for different lengths of times.
We do see that women here still disproportionately bear the mental load [for home maintenance and child care] in heterosexual relationships. So I can only conclude that the [effect of the pandemic] would have been similar here except that society didn’t shut down quite as much as it did maybe in Canada.
A point that you touch on a lot in the book, and something we’re struggling with here, is that there can be no true equality until women of all persuasions – whether it’s ethnicity, sexuality – are considered equal. Why is it important to recognize intersectionality as it relates to women’s rights and equality?
I wanted to include that because it’s vital and I believe it we won’t achieve [equality] without it, but also because sometimes people’s perception of Iceland is as a much more homogeneous community than it actually is. I wanted to counteract any [thought of], well, of course [equality] is easy in Iceland because everybody is the same and everybody has the same background and the same opportunities. That’s not the case.
We know, for instance that trans women are at a much higher risk of suicide and depression, and if we don’t address those issues, we’re not going to move the whole group forward. So gender equality isn’t for some elite group of Nordic white women, it’s for everybody. And it’s not only for women, it’s for everybody on the planet. It’s something that benefits everybody. We need to be very mindful of that.
Statistics are not hard to find that show when there’s gender equality, everyone benefits.
I know and it should be very practical. More gender quality means more money for companies. Men who live in more gender-equal countries live longer and are happier. This is not a zero-sum game.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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