What Americans Need to Know About Iceland

I just returned from an international conference in Iceland celebrating 100 years of women having the right to vote. What progress has been made in the century? What difference did women voting make? What remains to be done to achieve gender equality?

Iceland was a good location for the conference since it ranks #1 in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum 2014 Global Gender Gap Report. The other Nordic countries are right behind (Finland #2, Norway #3, Sweden #4 and Denmark #5) with the US coming in at #20. I wanted to see what it was like to be in the country closest to gender equality. What does that look like? How does it feel? I wanted to hear from the Nordic women how they made this progress. And join with them to strategize about the agenda for women over the next 100 years.

Being in Iceland was a bit like being dropped in Herland, a mythical country run by women in a novel by American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman just 100 years ago. Here is some of what makes Iceland the best in the world at closing the gender gap:

- Paid maternity leave for 9 months - three for the mother, three for the father, and three the parents decide who takes it - at up to 80% of your salary paid by the government.
- Paid sick leave.
- Health care for all.
- Free education, through college, which helps account for having the highest literacy rate in the world.
- A Minister of Social Affairs and Housing whose duties include promoting Gender Equality!
- And a person working on Gender Budgeting, who analyzes revenue and expenditures with an eye to how it impacts women and men. Who knew there was such a position!

It was inspiring being in a place where so many of the desired policies are already in place. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "If it exists, it's possible!"

A lot of this progress is due to the strong presence of women in politics and government. Iceland put in office the first democratically elected woman President in the world in 1980, and kept her in office for 16 years. Women are well-represented in ministerial positions and parliament, holding about 40% of those positions. That's more than twice the rate of the US where women hold under 20% of the seats in Congress.

The 19th Century women's movement put women's right to vote as the top priority, thinking that once women got some political power, they could use it to achieve other objectives. Time shows that this was an excellent strategy.

Talk to Icelandic women and they will tell you there's still work to be done to achieve gender equality. They're a bit surprised to be number one in the world. They are working to increase women's economic power to be more equal with men: the Minister of Social Affairs and Housing set a goal to close the pay gap by 2022, saying "We cannot wait another 100 years for full equality!" And they want to stop all gender-based violence including sexual harassment, revenge pornography, and rape.

But let's take a moment to salute the women of Iceland and their Nordic sisters for what they have achieved in the past century, and to thank the RIKK Institute for Gender, Equality and Difference at the University of Iceland for organizing this important conference in partnership with the Nordic Council of Ministers, the culmination of the Parliament's yearlong celebration for the suffrage centenary.

By using the vote, they elected women to office, and changed the agenda. They changed what politics IS. It's not just about how we get electricity, but also about taking care of our families, children, social welfare, and education. They promoted more family-friendly policies in government and business. They changed family law, prostitution laws, and unmarried women laws. They put closing the pay gap and stopping gender-based violence on the agenda.

It was sobering to answer their questions about what's happening with women in the US.

· Nationally we have up to three months of UNPAID family leave available to many workers, with only 12% of private sector workers having access to paid family leave through their employer. Only three of fifty states (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island) have implemented paid family leave with a maximum benefit of six weeks: Washington, DC is hoping to offer "unprecedented coverage" of sixteen weeks, although that proposal has not yet passed.
· Child care is expensive and often hard to find. So most working mothers live in a constant state of high stress, struggling to take care of their children, do their jobs, and pay the bills.
· College is expensive so students get loans to pay for their education, with student debt now totaling over $1 trillion: the average student loan balance is over $24,000, so many young people start out heavily in debt, delaying buying a home and starting a family.
· Although abortion is legal, states have enacted restrictive laws, and vigilantes bomb clinics and kill doctors who perform them, effectively closing access in huge parts of the country.

What to us seems like a dream, Nordic women seem to take for granted. Which raises the biggest danger. When Gro Bruntland, the first woman Prime Minister of Norway and head of the Bruntland Commission which helped launch the sustainable development movement worldwide, was asked what is the biggest challenge for women now, she said, "Our biggest challenge is taking equality for granted. We relax too much. We think everything is done for good. This worries me."

Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom and equality.