Iceland Blows The U.S. Away When It Comes To Women In Politics

First female president? They did that in the 20th century.

You might have heard something about how the U.S. could soon have its first female president. Iceland cleared that hurdle several decades ago.

The country blows the U.S. away when it comes to equal representation of the sexes, as Claire Zillman notes in

This weekend, Iceland elected a record number of women to its Parliament. Women will now hold 48 percent of the seats. That’s the largest percentage of women in a legislative body in the world, excepting those countries that have quotas for gender representation.

In the United States, women hold a sad 19 percent of the seats in Congress.

Last week, for the eighth straight year, Iceland came in first on the World Economic Forum’s list of countries ranked by gender equality in politics, education, health and economic opportunity.

The U.S. ranked 45th.

Iceland is far ahead of us for a number of reasons. First, as the Guardian notes, women there have a long history of self-reliance. For generations, while the men went to sea, women were the ones running things back home.

“Without men at home, women played the roles of farmer, hunter, architect, builder. They managed household finances and were crucial to the country’s ability to prosper,” The Guardian writes.

Then during the feminist wave of the 1970s, Iceland’s women did something amazing: They went on a massive strike. On Oct. 24, 1974, some 90 percent of the women stopped work ― at home or on the job ― and took to the streets.

The U.S. might elect this woman to be its first female president. Iceland cleared the whole female leader hurdle a few decades ago.
The U.S. might elect this woman to be its first female president. Iceland cleared the whole female leader hurdle a few decades ago.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

That show of power radically changed the country. Five years later Iceland elected its first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir. She held office for 16 years ― so long that you can find many stories of Icelandic kids who thought men simply weren’t qualified for the position. Vigdis tells The Guardian that she wouldn’t have been elected if it hadn’t been for that strike.

Some might quibble that Iceland’s president plays more of a ceremonial role than the U.S. president does. But they have that covered too: Johanna Siguroardottir became Iceland’s first female prime minister in 2009.

Feminist policies come more quickly when women actually hold office.

Iceland passed an excellent parental leave law in 2000. Each parent can take three months of non-transferable leave. That means most fathers actually take paternity leave. And working mothers return to their jobs relatively quickly after having kids ― instead of ramping down their careers or dropping out of the workforce entirely.

The country has not achieved total equality, though. There’s a gap in pay: Icelandic women make 14 percent less than men on average. So, of course, last week they left work and took to the streets to protest.

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