My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I’m average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait ‘til they learn
I’m dropping out.
So wrote Linda Pastan, in 1978. I wonder if she knew about Kvennafridagurinn, “Women’s Day Off”, three years earlier in Iceland.
To demonstrate the importance of women in the functioning of Icelandic society on October 24, 1975, Icelandic women—90% of them—didn’t show up to work or do any housework. More than 25,000 women rallied in Reykjavik for speeches and songs, impressive considering the country’s entire population then was only 216,695. Their day off has been described as a watershed moment in the country, which is now the most gender-equal in the world.
There was no telephone service. Many schools, nurseries and shops were closed or partially closed as the majority of teachers, caregivers and shopkeepers were women. All morning flights from Keflavik International Airport were cancelled because flight attendants didn’t show up to work. Banks had to be staffed by executives, and female tellers took special pleasure in going to the bank and keeping their male superiors busy. Fish factories were closed. Newspapers weren’t printed because the vast majority of typesetters were women. The women responsible for setting Iceland’s main newspaper returned to work “Cinderella-like” at midnight, printing the next day’s paper at half its normal size—and every article was about the strike.
Many fathers had no choice but to take their children to work, plying them with candy and colouring supplies. On radio newscasts, children’s excited voices could be heard in the background. Grocery stores that were open ran out of hot dogs. Iceland’s fathers were exhausted, leading to the day’s other name—Long Friday.
In 1975, named International Women’s Year by the UN, about 50% of working-age women in Iceland worked outside the home. In response to Kvennafridagurinn, the next year Iceland adopted its first Gender Equality Act, banning discrimination based on gender. Kvennafridagurinn also paved the way for the election of Iceland’s first female president, Vidgís Finnbogadóttir, who in 1980 beat three male candidates to become the first woman in the world to be democratically elected head of state. Vidgis (her name means. “war goddess”) was so popular that she won the next three elections—unopposed in two of them. When asked if having only one breast after cancer treatment might affect her qualifications as president, Vidgis said:
I’m not going to breastfeed the Icelandic nation; I’m going to lead it.
Kvennafridagurinn delivered “the knowledge that women are as well as men are the pillars of society,” Vidgís has said. “So many companies and institutions came to a halt and it showed the force and necessity of women—it completely changed the way of thinking.”
In 2000, paid paternity leave was introduced for men and in 2010 the country had the world’s first openly gay female prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottirt. Strip clubs were banned in the same year.
Since 2009 Iceland has topped the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index; the country’s gender pay gap between men and women is currently only 14%. At the time of Women’s Day Off, only 3 of the 63 members of parliament were women; today there are 30 or 48%. (Only 30% of Canada’s MPs are female.)
Iceland scored a perfect 100 on the World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law Report 2021.” Laws relating to mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets and pension are equal for both genders. There is however, room for improvement. A 2018 study showed that only 40% of senior management positions in Iceland are held by women compared with 43% in the United States. Shame on Canada; according to StatsCan, in 2021 women held only 30.9% of senior management positions in our country.
Subsequent days of Kvennafridagurinn took place in Iceland in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016 and 2018. But instead taking the entire day off, women left at the time when, on average, they’d completed their pay in comparison to men. In 2018, they left at 2:55 pm.
“We say in Iceland, ‘The steps so quickly fill up with snow,’ meaning there is a tendency to consign things to history,” says Vigdis. “But we still talk about that day—it was marvellous.”
Having read there was a Kvennafridagurinn display at the National Library in Reykjavik, Magellan and I went to see it. A small display in a cabinet in the basement. When I shared my disappointment with the young librarian, she readily agreed something more substantial should be in place.
Canadian-born Eliza Reid, Iceland’s first lady, wrote an engaging book, Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World. In it, she reminds us that many men were onboard with Kvennafridagurinn, noting that “Men who live in more gender-equal countries live longer and are happier. It’s not a zero-sum game.” Yesterday I heard her speak at the Vancouver Writers Fest.
Here’s to Sprakkar. A word unique to Iceland. Succinct and sounding a bit like “scrapper.” A word whose meaning is integral to the country’s success as a nation. Sprakkar: it means “extraordinary women.”
Update: Langer, Emily. “Linda Pastan, poet of concentrated beauty, dies at 90.” Washington Post, February 1, 2023.
Bjarnason, Egill. How Iceland Changed the World. New York: Penguin Books, 2021. The last chapter in this book, “Gender Equality,” is full of wonderful stories: a telegram from a crew on a fishing trawler convincing Vigdis to run for president, a Redstocking activist offering a cashier 70% of the tagged price to demonstrate inequality, and another about women dressing up a milk cow with a colourful cloak and a banner for the Miss Young Iceland beauty pageant.
Brewer, Kristie. “The day Iceland’s women went on strike.” BBC News. October 23, 205.
Hofverberg, Elin. “Kvennafridagurinn – The Day Icelandic Women Went on Strike.” The Library of Congress. March 2, 2022.
Pastan, Linda. “Marks.” Carnival Evening. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. One of my favourite poets, Linda Pastan has shelves of awards for her more than fifteen books of poetry and essays. In her senior year at Radcliffe College, she won the Mademoiselle poetry prize over Sylvia Plath. After graduation, she gave up writing for ten years to raise her family until her husband urged her to return to poetry. Give him an A+ for that. Linda celebrated her 90th birthday this year—her last volume of poems came out when she was 86 years old.
Reid, Eliza. Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2022. For those of you in Vancouver, Eliza is on stage again today, Sunday, October 23, at 4 pm.
Rudolfsdottir, Annadis. “The day the women went on strike.” The Guardian. October 18, 2005.
Siddiqi, Maryam. “The secret behind gender equality in Iceland.” The Globe and Mail.February 17, 2022.
“Women’s Day Off 1975.” The Women’s History Archives