Iceland has a lot to teach the rest of the world, says international best-selling author Eliza Reid – a Canadian-born writer, journalist and the country’s First Lady. The nation leads the world in closing the gender gap, thanks to the individual and collective actions of its citizens, including Icelandic women, known as the “Sprakkar.” Through initiatives such as developing social safety nets for new parents and creating support networks for women in their communities and workplaces, Icelanders demonstrate that gender equality benefits all people and society as a whole.
- Iceland leads the way in closing the gender gap worldwide.
- The country subsidizes parents and families, benefiting society as a whole.
- The Sprakkar draw succor from robust social networks and hobbies.
- Icelanders widely support people of all gender identities.
- Icelandic women create their own workplace networks and associations.
- Strong political role models in Iceland inspire movements for enhanced gender equality.
- The individual and collective actions of brave Sprakkar sparked meaningful societal change.
- Take a cue from Icelanders to improve gender equality in your life and community.
Iceland leads the way in closing the gender gap worldwide.
High levels of gender equality correlate with high levels of happiness, longevity and economic prosperity. Look to the women of Iceland for lessons in improving gender equality – and the quality of life for all citizens. Iceland leads the way in closing the gender gap in education, employment, politics and health, according to the World Economic Forum.
Iceland often appears in top 10 lists of citizen happiness, compared with other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Like the rest of the world, Iceland can still make progress toward improved gender equality. For example, Icelandic women still disproportionately take on domestic responsibilities.
“Equality is my right. It’s yours too.”
What sets Iceland apart, though, is that the country has normalized the value of gender equality. Eliza Reid interviewed dozens of Icelandic women – “Sprakkar” – from diverse and varying backgrounds, to glean lessons about what they can teach the rest of the world about gender equality. Iceland’s Sprakkar are everyday role models, as they elevate one another’s voices and embrace an ethos of mutual care.
The country subsidizes parents and families, benefiting society as a whole.
When people say they’re “rich” in Iceland, they aren’t typically referring to money, but instead to support systems for their families. Single parents enjoy considerable advantages in Iceland compared to the rest of the world: Midwives handle all aspects of prenatal care, free of cost; the government subsidizes child care services; and fathers and mothers can each claim generous parental leave from work. Often, men take parental leave in Iceland, which reduces the prejudice women workers face.
“Families are not usually self-contained units that exist as a bubble.”
To foment meaningful change in your country, lobby for more support networks for parents and families. The Icelandic government’s subsidies for those raising children benefit society as a whole. When fathers take parental leave, they involve themselves more deeply in their children’s lives, while taking on more household and child care duties. In Iceland, many children have healthier and stronger connections to their fathers than children enjoy in other countries.
The Sprakkar draw succor from robust social networks and hobbies.
Icelandic women work more outside the home than women in most countries, an achievement that springs from the country’s “it takes a village” mentality. Icelanders tend not to view the nuclear family as a self-contained, atomized unit. Families typically draw support from a network of grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts.
Icelandic society, by design, supports busy parents. Most children start taking public transit alone at around age eight or nine, for example. Rates of vandalism and substance abuse have plummeted amongst teenagers, following the government’s rollout of recreational grants. These funds engage children with subsidized after-school activities ranging from circus lessons to archery.
“Whether First Lady, sheep farmer, immigrant, soccer star, comedian, [or] mayor…we are all Icelanders sharing our stories and insights about what makes this land so equal for so many.”
Many women find support through their local “kvenfélög,” or women’s associations, which provide them with spaces to take on community leadership roles. More informally, women gather in “sewing clubs,” where small groups of friends find companionship and support. Women also join adventure groups, such as the “Jellyfish,” an association that meets weekly to train for swims across the English Channel.
Icelandic women prioritize hobbies and social support networks. Some women feel occasional guilt about taking time for their own interests. Normalizing self-care through group activities, though, helps Sprakkar navigate life’s challenges.
Icelanders widely support people of all gender identities.
Iceland has a better track record – from a societal and legislative perspective – than many other countries when it comes to protecting the rights of all gender identities. It became the fourth country to recognize same-sex unions in 1996, and legalized same-sex marriage in 2010 with a unanimous vote. Iceland garnered international recognition in 2009 for its stance on gender identity.
The country’s female prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, was the first openly gay head of state in the world. Many heterosexual politicians in Iceland openly demonstrate support for diverse identities. For example, Reykjavík’s former mayor – heterosexual Jón Gnarr – wore full drag when he rode on a pride parade float.
“Equality doesn’t happen of its own accord, and while we celebrate all steps forward, we must never forget how easy it is to slip back.”
Many of Iceland’s societal norms reduce gender stigmas. For example, public school forms don’t ask parents to identify as “mother” and “father,” but rather, as “parent one” and “parent two.” Trans youth can begin hormone blockers at puberty; Icelanders can request a legal gender name change at 15. And trans people can take cross-sex hormones with a physician’s approval when they turn 16.
Icelandic women create their own workplace networks and associations.
Only 13% of Iceland’s top 800 companies have CEOs who are women. The government has enacted equal pay laws and mandated gender balance in boardrooms. But corporate money still “remains firmly in the hands of men.” Women comprise only 11% of those running Iceland’s largest funds. And only 1.4% of private investment funds go to female-founded companies. Men hold onto power, for example, through male-only groups such as clubs, sports venues and hunting and fishing lodges, where they improve professional connections.
“We must see more women in decision-making roles within companies and in charge of allocating loans and funds to new enterprises.”
Women can create a more level playing field by nurturing professional networks. Iceland’s EXEDRA and its Association of Women Business Leaders, the FKA, create support networks for women of all ages, professions and political backgrounds. FKA incentivizes gender parity by giving an annual award to municipalities, organizations and companies that achieve a 60/40 gender balance or higher. Icelanders are working to increase the number of women in decision-making positions to improve their status in the workplace.
Strong political role models in Iceland inspire movements for enhanced gender equality.
Iceland elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first female head of state, as president in 1980. Following Finnbogadóttir’s election, Icelandic women formed the “Women’s List Party” to increase female representation in politics. By 1983, female representation rose from 5% to 15% in the Icelandic parliament, the Althing. In 2016-2017, Iceland had the highest percentage of women members of parliament in the world compared with other non-quota-regulated parliaments.
Nordic countries such as Iceland view education as a right, allowing anyone with a secondary school diploma to register for most university courses. Many young women engage in student activism, learning how to campaign and build networks while in university, where women comprise the majority of students and the governing student body.
“Growing up with strong female role models, in their own lives and in the public sphere, has had a nourishing effect on many of the nation’s female leaders of today.”
The dominance of young women in university politics doesn’t yet translate into proportional representation in the Althing. Many Sprakkar have lost faith in mainstream politics. Their cynicism grew partly out of a 2018 scandal triggered by leaked recordings of male parliamentarians making sexist statements about their female colleagues at Klaustur, a bar frequented by politicians. After “Klausturgate,” Iceland’s younger generation would be wise to fight their cynicism and look to female politicians who inspire hope that change is possible.
The individual and collective actions of brave Sprakkar sparked meaningful societal change.
Take inspiration from these stories of Sprakkar fighting for women’s rights in unique ways:
- The “undaunted Sprakki who fought for nature” – Iceland’s waterfall, Gullfoss, has long been a symbol of the nation’s natural beauty. Icelanders can thank Sigrídur Tómasdóttir for hiring a lawyer to fight her father – who owned the falls – after he considered damming them to generate hydroelectricity. Tómasdóttir threatened to throw herself into the falls if her father destroyed them with the dam. Ultimately, the government stepped in, purchasing the falls to protect them. Today, a memorial to Tómasdóttir sits at the top of the falls to celebrate her environmental activism.
- The “Sprakki who shattered the glass ceiling” – When theater director and teacher Vigdís Finnbogadóttir broke the metaphorical glass ceiling, becoming Iceland’s first female president in 1980, only three other women heads of state existed in the world, all of whom were unelected queens. Finnbogadóttir led the country with “aplomb, dignity, humor, intelligence and warmth,” serving as a role model to future generations.
- The “Sprakkar who rallied a nation” – In 1975, Icelandic women collectively organized to demonstrate how the country depended on their contributions. An estimated 90% took a day off from performing paid and unpaid labor from fields as diverse as child care and bank work. This strike resulted in school and factory closures and a nationwide lack of telephone service. Around 25,000 Icelandic women protested together in Reykjavik, shouting their motto, “I dare, I can, I will.” Less than a year following the protests, the Icelandic parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal rights for women.
Take a cue from Icelanders to improve gender equality in your life and community.
You don’t need to be Icelandic to advance gender equality. Use your voice to advocate for change in your community. To advocate for gender equality, it helps to take an intersectional approach. Aim to leave no one behind, including racial and sexual minorities, immigrants and the differently abled.
“Iceland does not have a monopoly on extraordinary women.”
One thing that makes Iceland stand out is the prevalence of women working in positions of power, in roles ranging from prime minister to government minister. The country’s achievements in closing the gender gap demonstrate the value of building community and being a role model for others. Having role models to emulate is an integral part of creating a more equitable society.
About the Author
Co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, Eliza Reid is a journalist and the First Lady of Iceland.
The book is a fascinating exploration of the lives, achievements, and challenges of Icelandic women who are making a difference in various fields such as politics, media, science, arts, and business. The author, Eliza Reid, is the First Lady of Iceland and a Canadian immigrant who has lived in the country for over two decades. She draws on her personal experiences, extensive research, and interviews with prominent Icelandic women to reveal the secrets of the sprakkar, a term that means “outstanding women” in Old Norse.
The book is divided into ten chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of Icelandic women’s history, culture, and society. The chapters are:
- An Immigrant in Iceland: The author introduces herself and her journey of becoming the First Lady of Iceland. She also explains the concept of the sprakkar and how they inspire her.
- Helping Parents Helps Us All: The author examines the benefits of Iceland’s generous parental leave policy and how it supports gender equality and family well-being.
- The Saga Era Sprakki Who Defied Convention: The author recounts the stories of some of the most remarkable women from the Icelandic sagas, who were brave, independent, and influential in their times.
- The Strength in Sisterhood: The author explores the power of women’s solidarity and activism in Iceland, from the historic Women’s Day Off in 1975 to the recent #MeToo movement.
- Stigma-Free Sexuality: The author discusses how Icelandic women enjoy sexual freedom and autonomy, and how they challenge the stereotypes and taboos around sexuality.
- The No Holds Barred Sprakki of the Middle Ages: The author introduces some of the most notorious women from the medieval period, who were accused of witchcraft, murder, adultery, and treason.
- Being Seen and Heard in the Media: The author analyzes the representation and participation of women in the Icelandic media, and how they use their voices to raise awareness and advocate for change.
- No Woman Is an Island: The author reflects on the importance of nature and community for Icelandic women, and how they balance their personal and professional lives.
- Politics on Her Own Terms: The author celebrates the achievements of Icelandic women in politics, from the world’s first democratically elected female president to the current prime minister and cabinet.
- Within Reach: The author concludes by sharing her hopes and visions for the future of Iceland and its sprakkar.
The book is written in a clear, engaging, and personal style that makes it easy to read and relate to. The author combines facts, anecdotes, quotes, and insights to create a rich and nuanced portrait of Icelandic women and their culture. The book is also full of interesting details, such as the origin of Icelandic names, the role of elves and trolls in folklore, the popularity of knitting and swimming pools, and the challenges of learning Icelandic.
The book is not only informative but also inspiring. It showcases the diversity, creativity, and resilience of Icelandic women who are leading by example and changing the world for the better. It also invites readers to reflect on their own values, goals, and potential as sprakkar in their own contexts.
The book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in learning more about Iceland, its history, its people, and its culture. It is also a valuable resource for anyone who wants to understand the factors that contribute to gender equality and social progress. It is a book that celebrates women’s achievements, challenges stereotypes, and sparks curiosity.
- Empowerment and Resilience: The book is centered around the empowerment and resilience of Icelandic women, who have faced numerous challenges throughout history, including gender-based discrimination, social and political marginalization, and economic inequality. Reid highlights the ways in which these women have overcome these obstacles and fought for their rights, serving as inspiration for others around the world.
- Cultural Identity and Heritage: Reid explores the complex relationship between gender, culture, and identity in Iceland, shedding light on the ways in which cultural heritage shapes the experiences and opportunities of women. She delves into the country’s unique history, language, and social norms, highlighting the ways in which these factors influence the lives and perspectives of Icelandic women.
- Leadership and Innovation: The book showcases the innovative and transformative leadership of Icelandic women in various fields, including politics, business, art, and activism. Reid highlights the achievements of these women, demonstrating the significant impact they have had on their communities and society at large.
- Intersectionality and Allyship: Reid also explores the intersections of gender with other forms of oppression, such as race, class, and sexuality, highlighting the importance of allyship and collective action in promoting social justice. She provides examples of women who have used their platforms to amplify marginalized voices and advocate for inclusive policies and practices.
- Richly Detailed Narrative: Reid’s writing is engaging, informative, and richly detailed, making the book an enjoyable and immersive read. Her use of vivid anecdotes, historical context, and personal stories helps bring the experiences and achievements of Icelandic women to life.
- Empowering and Inspiring: The book is highly empowering and inspiring, providing readers with examples of women who have overcome significant obstacles to achieve their goals and make a positive impact on their communities. Reid’s narrative encourages readers to embrace their own power and potential, and to work towards creating a more equitable and inclusive society.
- Timely and Relevant: The book’s focus on the achievements and challenges of Icelandic women is particularly timely and relevant, given the current global conversation around gender equality and the ongoing efforts to address systemic oppression. Reid’s work serves as a powerful reminder of the significance of intersectional approaches to gender justice and the importance of amplifying marginalized voices.
- Limited Focus: While the book provides a comprehensive overview of the experiences and achievements of Icelandic women, it does not delve as deeply into the broader social and political context in which these women operate. A more nuanced understanding of the country’s political and economic systems, as well as the broader cultural and historical context, could have enriched the narrative.
- Somewhat Disjointed Structure: The book’s structure is somewhat disjointed, with some chapters feeling somewhat disconnected from the broader narrative. This can make it challenging for readers to follow the author’s argument or fully understand the connections between the different topics and themes discussed.
- Lack of Critical Analysis: While Reid provides numerous examples of the innovative and transformative leadership of Icelandic women, she does not engage in critical analysis of the social, political, and cultural factors that have shaped their experiences. A more in-depth examination of these factors could have provided a deeper understanding of the structural barriers and opportunities facing Icelandic women.
Here are some additional thoughts on the book:
- I was particularly inspired by the stories of the women who have fought for gender equality in Iceland. These women were not afraid to stand up for what they believed in, even in the face of adversity. They are an inspiration to us all.
- I also appreciated the author’s insights into the culture of Iceland and how it has contributed to the country’s success in gender equality. Iceland has a strong sense of community and a commitment to social justice, and these values have helped to create a more equal society for all.
- I believe that Secrets of the Sprakkar is an important book for our time. It provides a roadmap for other countries to follow in their quest for gender equality. I hope that many people will read this book and be inspired by the stories of the Icelandic women who have made a difference in the world.
I hope you enjoyed my review of [Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World] by [Eliza Reid].