President of Iceland

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President of Iceland

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became President of Iceland on 29 June 1980. She was the fourth President of the Republic of Iceland and served four terms of office, leaving office in 1996. Vigdís was re-elected unopposed in 1984, returned in an election in 1988 and was again re-elected unopposed in 1992. She retired from office on 31 July 1996.

In her inaugural address on 1 August 1980, Vigdís said:

“My sincere wish above all, now and in the future, is that the democratic values of the nation evident during these elections and in our constitution as a whole will benefit our country and all its inhabitants, both in our dealings with each other and with other nations.” (Inaugural address 1980)

Many people wanted to meet and talk to the first female president in the world elected in a national election. Her popularity and the respect in which she was held increased due to the fact that she spoke several languages and was well acquainted with the history and culture of many countries. She was applauded for her proficiency in the Scandinavian languages as well as French, English and German. At the beginning of her second term of office, Vigdís said: “When I took office here four years ago, I think there were only a handful of people who fully realised that Icelanders had written a new chapter in history by being the first to choose a woman as their president in a general election. The past four years that I have been in office have been deeply influenced by the attention given to this by other nations. Media innovations mean that news speeds across the world – sometimes even news that is hardly newsworthy – and this created curiosity about Iceland and the Icelandic people, who were regarded as somewhat audacious. An increasing number of countries wanted to know more about the island in the North and to establish links of friendship.”

On the 25th anniversary of her election, Vigdís said that she had been surrounded by good men in tailcoats at her inauguration and that she had hardly seen any women in the group apart from Halldóra Eldjárn. She said that later on she realised how extraordinary it was that Iceland had elected a female president: “It doesn’t matter where I am in the world. People always mention it. The election drew a lot of attention to Iceland and Icelanders” (Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, interview, January 2009).

During her presidency, Vigdís often commented on the position of women in society. At the end of the United Nations Decade for Women in 1985, she said that it was a long way from Iceland to heaven. Despite some progress having been made, victory was still a long way off.

Vigdís was a popular and respected president. She was considered a very capable head of state and won unanimous praise for her behaviour in the wake of the1995 avalanches in Flateyri and Súdavík. Vigdís attended a special memorial service for those who died in the avalanches and showed great compassion and warmth to the families of those who perished and to all inhabitants of the West Fjords. “People took comfort in a hug, and fishermen weren’t shy about crying on my shoulder” (Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, interview, January 2009). She recalled the events in her New Year address in 1995: “When we look back over the year which has just ended, we experience a deep sense of mourning. This was a year of terriblel natural disasters, a year of great tragedy for individuals, whole regions, and for the whole nation. When dreadful things happen, such as the events in Súðavík and Flateyri, we are made to feel our own helplessness more keenly, but at the same time our hearts are filled with compassion for all those who have suffered such a heavy loss, both there and elsewhere in our country.”

4.1 Country, nation and language

Vigdís’s two principal concerns during her presidency were education and the nurturing of Iceland’s people, country and language, which she saw as one interwoven whole. She often spoke of language and words being precious to the nation and constituting the foundation stone of its culture.

“Words are Icelanders’ castles. In our smallness and poverty, we never lost our strength of character. We never forgot to put into words – the only lasting material that we have – all that we hold good and all that we think. It is precisely for this reason that we have found it so easy to create for ourselves a multifaceted modern culture.” (Inaugural address, 1980)

Vigdís has often remarked that nothing was of more use to her as president than knowing foreign languages and having an insight into the culture of other countries. In this way, she was able to initiate useful communication with other nations, publicise Icelandic culture and advertise Icelandic production. Wherever Vigdís went, she drew attention to Iceland, the Icelandic language, nature and history, and to her country’s links with the outside world. She has frequently stressed the importance of foreign language skills in international business. Knowledge of the language and culture of those one is negotiating with is the key to understanding their own culture and thus forms the basis of successful business transactions and other forms of communication.

In her first inaugural address, Vigdís spoke of the significance of the Icelandic language for the country:

“We are often reminded that it is the Icelandic language over and above anything else that makes us Icelanders. Language guards a treasure trove of memories, it gives us the words with which to express our hopes and our dreams. It is our true unifying symbol and force. But the Icelandic language does not only make us Icelanders, it also makes us people. It makes us citizens of the world who have a duty to make the greatest contribution we can to improve the human spirit.”

During her first summer as president, Vigdís made five official visits to parts of Iceland, including Grímsey. It was the first time that a President of Iceland had made an official visit to the island.

“I believe that everyone who is given the responsibility of living at Bessastadir prefers to be among their own people, their own nation. At home in their own country, at their beautiful home in Álftanes or with good people anywhere else in the country. These people are at all times hospitable and friendly, generous and cultured. Wherever the President of the country goes it is a memorable event and a source of true joy for me, now and in the future.” (Inaugural address, 1984)

Vigdís likened cultivating trees to bringing up children, saying that cultivating the land had close connections to nurturing humans, which has its foundation in how young people are raised. There was little point in cultivating a barren land if we forgot that the future of the nation rests wholly with its youth. She urged Iceland’s young people on to great deeds and reminded older generations to set a good example. In her third inaugural address in 1988, she welcomed the new wave of interest in conservation and land cultivation shown by Icelanders.

“There is a steady increase in the number of people to whom it is clear that the land that is our heritage demands that we cultivate and preserve it, return to it the vegetation that it has lost, and use all our knowledge and ingenuity to do this. This is our means to repay our debt of land to generations both born and unborn. We may judge previous generations harshly for treating our land more severely than good sense allowed but we need also to understand that they had no choice. We do not have the same excuse and our descendants will not forgive us on the same terms. For this reason we must know what we are doing, must know our land and our fishing grounds, must be aware of their qualities and their limits.” (Inaugural address, 1988)