On my last day in Iceland, I wandered through the streets of Reykjavík, looking for Icelandic women to interview for my study .
I had initially approached two women working in a local retail store. While they respectfully declined to be photographed or interviewed, they suggested I go to a local coffee shop or bookstore to find other local women. I ventured into the Icelandic equivalent of a Barnes & Noble. Surrounded by piles of books, I perused best-seller collections and soon found a little café tucked in the back of the store. As I approached the counter, I noticed a table of four women who were just about to leave. I gave them my pitch and they were all eager and willing to participate.
After taking each woman’s portrait, I asked them the same question: “What is it like being a woman in gender progressive Iceland?”
Of the four women, each gave a varied and in-depth response, but it was Lilja, the youngest, whose answer resonated with me most. She not only reiterated her appreciation for equality in her home country, but she also referenced the equality found in her own family history, honoring her mother, her grandmother, and the other elder females that shaped her perspective. It was these women who inspired Lilja and gave her the strength and direction to navigate the world. It was a moment I will never forget.
This entire project started with a simple documentary — there’s nothing I enjoy watching more. If you were to ask me the names of the latest movie theater blockbusters, I wouldn’t be able to name a single title. But if you were to sit me down in front of an HBO documentary, I’d be glued to the television for hours.
Even afterwards, I’d frantically turn to Google for more information on the subject. I’ve been told me that it makes me too cerebral, but watching and learning is what I thrive on. Once I get a topic or subject stuck in my mind, I go down a rabbit hole.
I stumbled across a documentary on Facebook that I later watched and was fascinated by — “Where to Invade Next,” by Michael Moore. The premise of the film is to explore how other countries are excelling in ways the United States is failing. He profiled the school system in Finland, the prison system in Norway, and the debt-free education system in Slovenia. But what struck me the most was when the film took a detour to Iceland and profiled their stance on gender equality and women’s rights. I was shocked to learn that the first democratically elected female president in the world was from Iceland! Her name is Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, and she was a divorced, single mother when she ran for office and shocked the world with a win.
In the film, Vigdis is quick to offer credit for her 1980 win to the women of Iceland. Just five years prior to her election — on October 24, 1975 — Icelandic women staged a nation-wide protest where nearly 90 percent of women across the country walked out of their jobs and homes to raise awareness for women’s contribution to society, both in the home and the workforce. Now known as “Women’s Day Off,” this day is celebrated throughout the country each year. As I was planning my trip to Iceland, I realized that my visit coincided with the holiday. With that in mind, I delved deeper into the country’s past.
Gender equality is a topic I’m highly interested in, but since Iceland is a modern European nation, it wasn’t even on my radar. Vigdis’ presidency and the laws Iceland enacted to enforce gender equality aren’t widely known. Since her reign as president, the country has passed laws requiring businesses that have more than 15 employees to document and prove that they pay women equally. Since the 1960s, women have reached close to equal footing in the workforce, and numbers are still steadily growing. In 2009, even the percentage of women elected members of parliament surpassed that of men. Iceland is certainly leading the way in the fight for gender equality, and the country is seeing positive results because of it.
All of this inspired me to formulate a portrait project that would profile Icelandic women during my trip across the country.
As we traversed the Ring Road, I photographed local women and asked them one question: “What does it feel like to be a woman in gender-progressive Iceland?” I was astounded, pleasantly surprised, and inspired by each woman’s response.
These women came from all backgrounds. I met some in a local coffee shop or restaurant, one on a tour of a glacial lagoon, some at retail stores, and one at the guesthouse where we stayed for a night.
Some of the women were a bit shy, but once they started answering my question and thinking about their lives in a pro-gender country, they opened up. Pride emanated from each of them, their eyes sparkled, and they were genuinely happy to talk with me about the normalization of gender equality. Some were quick and concise with their answers, while others took time to elaborate and turned their interview into soul-bearing conversations with me, a stranger. I learned that being a female asking other females about gender equality immediately forms a bond,one that I eagerly welcomed.