first lady of iceland

First lady of Iceland: “Gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’”

For more than a decade, Iceland has been at the forefront of the fight for gender equality. TNF’s Valeria Camerino spoke to the first lady of Iceland Eliza Reid about her new book Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They are Changing the World, and the challenges that lie ahead for our societies to become more inclusive and gender equal.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. You have become the first lady of Iceland in 2016 after your husband, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, was elected president, but by then, you had already built your own identity as a writer for various publications, as well as co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat. How did public perception of you change when you were named first lady?

I simply wasn’t as well known among the general public before. I don’t think people who knew me already changed their perceptions of me, but people who were hearing about me for the first time (understandably) tended to know me as the president’s wife, rather than, say, co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat.

You have four children and a stepdaughter. In 2022, there are still many women complaining that, once they become mothers, they tend to lose their individual identity because society does no longer acknowledge that. No matter if, before becoming a parent, they had high-flying jobs, once they have a child, particularly in more conservative countries, they are still viewed as “mothers of their children,” rather than doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs or whatever they were doing up until that point. Did you also experience that and how can we change that kind of mentality?

I don’t experience that too much when I’m in Iceland because most women have paying jobs (or are students) that they continue with after taking parental leave. But I have never been on a work trip abroad by myself without someone asking me who is looking after the children – when clearly their other parent isn’t with me on the trip!

When we talk about gender equality, the emphasis is often placed on women as those who need to be empowered and encouraged to stand up for themselves. By doing so, aren’t we putting too much pressure on ourselves by implicitly continuing to blame fellow women for societal rules set by men? Shouldn’t we rather focus our efforts on changing toxic gender stereotypes in order to provide men with a safe space to feel vulnerable?

We need to do a lot of things at once. One important dimension is emphasizing that achieving gender equality is not a “women’s issue”. It is a societal challenge that we all need to work to ameliorate and from which we will all benefit. Another is not putting men and women into binary “boxes” of how they should or should not behave, and that involves encouraging people to be themselves and not necessarily to conform to what society expects of their gender. For women, that may be by encouraging them to take up space and use their voices more, and for men to express emotions and define masculinity in a broader sense. Or simply to be less binary in our definitions overall.

In a recent interview, you said that Secrets of the Sprakkar is not meant to be an “Iceland is a gender paradise” book. I am eager to find out more. Could you please elaborate on that?

Iceland may have topped the World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index for the past dozen years, but being in first place doesn’t mean we have won the race (it’s not even a competition!). While we have a lot to be proud of, we still have a lot left to achieve and it’s important to remember that.

Talking about “imperfect” countries, despite being at the forefront of the fight for gender equality, Iceland and other Nordic countries also rank quite high among the nations with high suicide rates. Given that male suicides are also a concerning trend in this country, what do you think that should be done to address such a pressing issue?

Suicide is absolutely an issue that we need to be looking at. I am patron of the Pieta House suicide and self-harm prevention organization and they, along with others, are doing important work in Iceland by providing rapid support to people and their families, as well as working to reduce stigma surrounding this issue.

What would you list as your biggest achievements to date?

Making a home and a life for myself in a new country, including starting my own business and learning the language.

What are the main cultural differences between Iceland and your country of birth, Canada, as far as gender equality is concerned?

E: I believe that both Canada and Iceland value gender equality. So I wouldn’t say that there are big differences, other than that we are perhaps farther along in different areas e.g. there are more women serving in elected office in Iceland and I suspect there are more women running large companies in Canada (though I confess I don’t know the exact statistics!).

You describe yourself as a feminist. What does being a feminist mean to you in a world where this term still raises quite a few eyebrows and where even self-proclaimed feminists often have completely different interpretations of it? (See for example, the so-called “gender critical” feminists or TERFs).

Being a feminist to me means believing that gender equality in all facets of society and for people of all genders is a goal that we should be aiming to achieve.

“Women will be criticised no matter what.” Do you agree with this statement? Why? Why does it seem so difficult to respect a woman’s choice, whether it has to do with her career, her body, her civil status, her religion, and so on?

I think it’s a very cynical statement. I would rather argue that we need to work on making personal choices that are right for ourselves and in line with our values and not worry about what other people, who are not impacted by those choices, say.

What message would you like to give to women and girls all over the world who are looking up to you as a role model in the fight for gender equality?

My message is that we can all be role models, that we can all use our voices for good and try to make the world a better place. And that I hope I can be a role model in the fight for gender equality for all people, not just women and girls.

Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They are Changing the World  by Eliza Reid will be published by Sourcebooks on 8 March, 2022.