Today is a big day in Iceland: it’s the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage. It will be celebrated with an array of events across the country. Female staff at the IR office, as at many other workplaces, have been given part of the day off to take part in the celebrations. Other workplaces close altogether today in honor of the anniversary.
In Reykjavík, the program includes musical and art performances between 11 am and 2 pm in Hjómskálagarðurinn park; choir performances at Lækjargata street and Austurvöllur square between 2:30 and 4 pm; a parade from Miðbæjarskólinn school to Austurvöllur at 3:45 pm; a ceremony and speeches at Austurvöllur, including by former President of Iceland Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, from 4 to 5 pm; exhibition openings at various times throughout the city; and a special concert by female songwriters at Harpa starting at 8:30 pm.
The celebrations aren’t just centered on June 19, though. Diverse events, exhibitions and conferences related to women’s rights have been organized throughout the anniversary year.
Preceded by New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902, Latvia in 1905, Finland in 1906, Norway in 1913 and Denmark in 1915, Iceland was among the first countries in the world to grant women the right to vote for parliament in 1915.
However, until 1920, only women over the age of 40 could vote—nowhere else in the world was women’s suffrage restricted in this way. It should also be pointed out that not only women earned the right to vote in 1915; the right was extended to all men, as until then, only men of the upper social classes could take part in elections.
In 1894 the first women’s rights organization, the Icelandic Women’s Association, was founded in Iceland. The association arranged for petitions to parliament to grant suffrage to women, collected the signatures of more than 11,000 women in 1907—nearly the same number as that of enfranchised men.
The greatest pioneer of the Icelandic women’s rights organization was Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir (1856-1940). She founded the first woman’s magazine in Iceland, Kvennablaðið, which was popular among women all over Iceland.
In 1904, Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), contacted Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir and asked her to found a suffrage society in Iceland.
Bríet attended the IWSA congress in Copenhagen in 1906 where she was introduced to the various political work that women were engaged in, including running slates at local elections and school boards.
As Bríet turned, she increasingly didn’t agree with the policies of the Icelandic Women’s Association, so she started a new organization: the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, in January 1907. With its main focus being women’s suffrage, the association promptly joined the IWSA.
Bríet wrote in Kvennablaðið on January 21, 1907:
“The experience of the last fifty years or so has proven to women elsewhere in the world that in order to establish equality between men and women and gain full political citizenship for women, only one thing is essential, that thing being the cornerstone for all other women’s rights; that thing is political rights: women’s suffrage and women’s eligibility in politics. All other rights are derived from this.”
In 1908, married women earned the right to vote at the local elections in Reykjavík (unmarried women and widows who paid taxes, but were not maids, having gained that right in 1882).
The women of Reykjavík stood for election in order to influence the town council on matters concerning women and children. The women’s slate proved victorious, receiving 22 percent of valid votes cast and four of the 15 councilors.
In 1913, parliament agreed on a bill on women’s suffrage, signed by the Danish king on June 19, 1915. In the parliamentary election in 1922, a women’s slate received 22.4 percent of the vote and Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason became the first female parliamentarian in Iceland.
In the past century, both men and women have fought for equality in Iceland, and in 100 years, we have come a long way. In 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the first woman in the world to be democratically elected president and in 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland’s first female prime minister, became the world’s first openly gay head of state.
I salute the suffragettes for their vigorous fight for gender equality and for paving the way for us modern women who, thanks to them, can be whoever we want to be. They had courage, believed in themselves and had equal respect for everyone.
Many of today’s feminists, who seem more concerned about getting back at men than achieving actual gender equality, should take a look back and take them as an example.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com