The day Iceland's women went on strike

BY: BBC
Women's History Archives

Forty years ago, the women of Iceland went on strike - they refused to work, cook and look after children for a day. It was a moment that changed the way women were seen in the country and helped put Iceland at the forefront of the fight for equality.

When Ronald Reagan became the US President, one small boy in Iceland was outraged. "He can't be a president - he's a man!" he exclaimed to his mother when he saw the news on the television.

It was November 1980, and Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, had won Iceland's presidency that summer. The boy didn't know it, but Vigdis (all Icelanders go by their first name) was Europe's first female president, and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state.

 

Many more Icelandic children may well have grown up assuming that being president was a woman's job, as Vigdis went on to held the position for 16 years - years that set Iceland on course to become known as "the world's most feminist country".

But Vigdis insists she would never have been president had it not been for the events of one sunny day - 24 October 1975 - when 90% of women in the country decided to demonstrate their importance by going on strike.

Instead of going to the office, doing housework or childcare they took to the streets in their thousands to rally for equal rights with men. It is known in Iceland as the Women's Day Off, and Vigdis sees it as a waFind out more

"What happened that day was the first step for women's emancipation in Iceland," she says. "It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men."

Banks, factories and some shops had to close, as did schools and nurseries - leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring pencils to entertain the crowds of overexcited children in their workplaces. Sausages - easy to cook and popular with children - were in such demand the shops sold out.

It was a baptism of fire for some fathers, which may explain the other name the day has been given - the Long Friday.

"We heard children playing in the background while the newsreaders read the news on the radio, it was a great thing to listen to, knowing that the men had to take care of everything," says Vigdis.

As radio presenters called households in remote areas of the country to gauge how many rural women were taking the day off, the phone was often answered by husbands who had stayed at home to look after the children.

As I talk to Vigdis in her home in Reykjavik, she has on her lap a framed black-and-white photograph of the rally in Reykjavik's Downtown Square - the largest of more than 20 to take place throughout the country.

Vigdis, her mother and three-year-old daughter are somewhere in the sea of 25,000 women, who gathered to sing, listen to speeches and talk about what could be done. It was a huge turnout for an island of just 220,000 inhabitants.

At the time she was artistic director of the Reykjavik Theatre Company and abandoned dress rehearsals to join the demonstration, as did her female colleagues.

"There was a tremendous power in it all and a great feeling of solidarity and strength among all those women standing on the square in the sunshine," Vigdis says. A brass band played the theme tune of Shoulder to Shoulder, a BBC television series about the Suffragette movement which had aired in Iceland earlier that year.