It seems surprising to the international community that one of the leading nations in gender equality, fair wages, and equal opportunities for women is situated in the Arctic Ocean, nestled between the icy-cold Nordic nation of Norway and the Danish realm of Greenland: the Republic of Iceland. With the struggle rooted in the early 20th century and formally beginning in 1975 with the famed women’s strike, it comes as no surprise that Icelandic people have one of the highest gender equality and wage fairness statistics on Earth, closing %91,2 of the gender gap according to the World Economic Forum. With the last strike occurring a few weeks prior, it begs the question: How and when did this movement start, how was it able to stop an island nation to a halt, and how was it so successful in changing wages for the common good?
Last month, on October 24th, the women of the Arctic-Nordic country of Iceland went on strike for gender equality in every walk of life: workplaces, laws, and societal roles. With the remarkable decision of the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, leaning in favor of the strike and joining it personally, it had been the most effective and largest ever strike when compared to previous ones held. Known as the “Kvennafri” in Icelandic, meaning Women’s Day Off, is a protest with an official purpose to raise awareness about systemic injustice that exists within wages and the violence faced by the women of Iceland. A frequent question on the minds of onlookers from around the world; how did Icelandic women come to be such organized, and when did this all start?
An aerial photograph of the crowd formed during this years’ protest, October 2023
According to RUV (Rikisutvarpith), the Icelandic public broadcaster, a handful of schools and libraries outright declared it an off-day; medical institutions only treated emergency cases, and only a single bank branch remained in full operation on the island. The RUV even apologized to readers that its own coverage had been significantly reduced as female journalists and media workers were participating at the protest
A surprising visitor for many hopeful Icelandic women, Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, postponed a cabinet meeting to show support and join the union of Icelandic women against gender inequality. “Looking at the whole world, it could take 300 years to achieve gender equality”, Jakobsdottir proclaimed to RUV. She also exclaimed that targeted violence and assault on women was one of her government’s key targets to eliminate. The President of Iceland, Gudni Johanesson, supported the strike with a tweet, saying that “their activism had changed Icelandic society for the better.” As we see the equal rights movement catalyzing in size and raising awareness, it would be meaningful to rewind back decades ago to see how these strikes came to be.
In 1975, women who were working in their occupancies earned less than 60% of what men would earn from the same job. As the United Nations announced that the year was going to be commemorated as the International Women’s Year, a newly-formed women’s rights group known as the Redstockings announced that holding a strike against unequal wages and mistreatment of women would be fitting for this occasion. Additionally, the ruling committee of the group exclaimed that it would be a complete “day off” to express the undeniable importance women hold in daily life.
As the day came, on 24th October 1975, Icelandic women went on an outright strike and did not go to their jobs or do any housework beginning 2:05 PM. During the strike, it was reported that an incredible 90% of Icelandic women had participated. 25,000 women, which was a significant number, especially for a country with a population of only 220,000 people, gathered in the city center of the capital, Reykjavik, where activists and women from all walks of life held speeches while women sang and danced to regional folk songs. Two members of parliament also went on to make speeches on behalf of the women of Iceland. Due to the ginormous impact the strike had on daily life, employers prepared by buying sweets, pencils, and paper, as working fathers were expected to bring their children to work due to mothers partaking in the strike. It was also noted that fish factories, one of the primary and most crucial exports of Iceland at the time, had to be temporarily closed as the majority of laborers were women.
A photograph taken from above in the 1975 protest, at the Reykjavik city center.
As the strike ended, leaving women with an undeniable spirit of hope and solidarity, the Parliament of Iceland rapidly passed a law protecting equality in the workplace and wage affairs. The aforementioned effect it had on the outlook of the Icelandic people opened the way for the election of Vigdis Finnbogadottir in 1980, an Icelandic teacher and performing arts graduate that sought to represent the Icelandic people as a whole would serve as president for 16 years.
As the strikes continued to be held, the time at which women in the country left to protest have delayed every time by a few minutes, with the amount relatively increasing as the strikes became more frequently held by the 21st century, as to reflect on the amount of progress made by these efforts. In the previous strike, in 2016, women left their offices, factories, and homes at 2:38 PM, 33 minutes later than the starting time of the 1975 strike.
The former Minister of Climate, Kolbrun Halldorsdottir, said that “you can see in the pictures that it’s a colorful bunch of people, even though most of the pictures were black and white”
Compared to the first-ever strike held in 1975, the bigger protest held this year had a more holistic and multi-faceted point of view on the issues that need to be put to light. Now, the people and government of the Nordic island nation of Iceland hope to achieve total equality in wage payments by eliminating the gender gap and also raising awareness of the fair treatment that women deserve in all walks of life, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or class. These efforts have paid off as Iceland has closed 91% of its gender gap, holding the title of the only country to ever go above 90% in equality levels, according to the World Economic Forum.
With its aim to close and eliminate this gap totally, Iceland should be a shining example for other nations and their peoples who are aspiring for gender equality and the solidarity between women.
CNN, Iceland’s prime minister joins thousands of women on strike, Niamh Kennedy, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/23/europe/iceland-women-strike-scli-intl/index.html
The Guardian, ‘Power of the masses’: the day Iceland’s women went on strike and changed history, Miranda Bryant, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/24/power-of-the-masses-the-day-icelands-women-went-on-strike-and-changed-history
The Guardian, The day the women went on strike, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/18/gender.uk
Kvenrettindafelag (Icelandic Women’s Rights Association), https://kvenrettindafelag.is/en/resources/womens-day-off/
Sky News, Iceland's Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir joining women on strike over equal pay and gender-based violence, Russell Hope, https://news.sky.com/story/icelands-prime-minister-katrin-jakobsdottir-will-join-women-on-strike-over-equal-pay-12991253