The Icelandic President is chosen by the nation in a direct election. Although the position of President is apolitical, current trends within the country have had a profound effect on candidates’ success.
For a presidential candidate to gain the support of the nation, Icelanders must feel that he or she speaks for them, is their representative and bearer of whatever new ideas and ways of life are uppermost at that time. By the 1980s, Icelandic women had been demanding that their voices be heard and their participation in politics be accepted. The women’s movement brought about an increased understanding of gender equality and advances in legal rights for women. Women’s leadership in the public domain, which had been minimal before this time, increased after 1980. Although Vigdís’s origins did not lie within the women’s movement and despite her candidature not representing the unity of women’s power as such, her presidential campaign was undoubtedly helped by the positive attitude to women that followed International Women’s Year in 1975.
Between 1971 and 1983, only three women had served as members of the Icelandic parliament (Althing). In 1922, Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason became the first woman to be elected to parliament and, until the 1980s, there had only been one or two women in parliament. In 1980, the 10 ministers forming the government were all men. In 1974, men made up 96% of all local government representatives. A similar pattern was seen in ministeries and other public offices. One woman served as ministerial director general; however, the permanent secretaries of all the ministeries were men. There was no female bank director or sheriff. Despite a dramatic increase in women’s participation in the workforce, women did not play an active role in leadership.
It was on United Nations Day, 24 October 1975, that several women’s associations organized a joint programme of events in Laekjartorg in central Reykjavík. Tens of thousands of women stopped work that day and marched to the outdoor meeting to support their demands for gender equality. For the first time, Icelandic women and their struggle for equality gained the world’s attention.
The face of Icelandic politics was changed by Vigdís’s presidential candidature and subsequent election in 1980, women’s participation in local elections two years later and the emergence of the Women’s Party in the run-up to parliamentary elections in 1983. Political parties in Iceland realised that women “had heaps of votes” and that they “dared, could and wanted” to take an active part in politics. Women stood for election more frequently and the number of women elected as representatives increased.
3.1 Presidential candidature
After it became clear that President Kristján Eldjárn would not stand for re-election for a fourth term of office, the question arose of whether a woman should be encouraged to stand for election. Many people supported this idea and the first mention of Vigdís’s name was in the Dagbladid newspaper. In a letter to the editor, Laufey Jakobsdóttir, a Reykjavík housewife, explained how a group of women had come to the conclusion that Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, theatre director, should submit her candidature for presidency. At that point, Albert Gudmundsson, Gudlaugur Thorvaldsson and Pétur J. Thorsteinsson had announced that they would all stand for election.
In an article on the presidential elections in Dagbladid on 28 January 1980, Vigdís denied all reports that she would run for president. Four days later, on 1 Febuary, Dagbladid carried a front-page article with the headline “Vigdís to stand for president”.
In the article, Vigdís is asked whether she thinks being a woman will detract from her suitability as president. When she replies, “No”, and is then reminded by the journalist that she is unmarried, she says, “Yes, I am, but I’ve coped up until now in public life, at banquets and other functions without a gentleman by my side.”
When Vigdís was asked whether she had been persuaded to stand for presidency because she was a woman, she replied, “Of course I’m aware of being a woman, even though sometimes I forget. Many of the people who have phoned me want at least one female face among the candidates.”
The following day, in an article in Tíminn newspaper Vigdís explained that she had received lists of support from all over the country: “I think what tipped the scales was the telegram I got from an entire ship’s crew out at sea encouraging me to stand. It’s probably the most beautiful telegram that I’ve ever received.” The telegram was from the crew of the Isafjörður-based Gudbjartur, who continued to send Vigdís letters of encouragement and good wishes for the duration of the election campaign. The crews of other ships followed suit and it became clear that Vigdís had the support of many fishermen. According to Vigdís, they supported her because they spent long periods at sea and valued the hard work and responsibilities that their womenfolk had to take on at home.
Women played an important role in Vigdís’s election campaign. Vigdís’s campaign manager was Svanhildur Halldórsdóttir, and 15 of the 24 elections offices were run by women. Many women who had been active in the Red Stockings movement supported her candidature. They called for women’s power through united action and encouraged women to show solidarity as they had done on Women’s Day Off. Both women and men claimed in newspaper articles that this was the nation’s opportunity to support gender equaliy by following through words with actions.
Svanhildur Halldórsdóttir, Vigdís’s campaign manager, is of the opinion that, despite the fact that many people felt she possessed the qualities the presidency required, Vigdís’s unmarried status detracted from her popularity. Vigdís herself always maintained that it was highly unlikely that she would have submitted her candidature if she had had a man by her side. It was not the sort of thing that could be imposed upon a man of her generation, even though she could impose it upon herself. Vigdís claimed that people should vote for her because she was a man. Voting for a woman was just as obvious as voting for a man. “If I can do something that advances women then that is of benefit to the daughters of the nation.”
The cold war was at its height during the lead-up to the presidential elections in 1980. Influential people within Icelandic society felt it unacceptable that the President of Iceland might be able to influence the defence agreement with the United States of America in a negative way. Vigdís was accused of being left-wing and answered her accusers by saying that she supported equality and peace. If that made her left-wing, then she admitted it. The presence of a foreign army in Iceland should be questioned but global danger made it necessary to have an army here. The army was a guest in our country.
Elísabet Thorgeirsdóttir, fish-factory worker and poet, composed a poem for Vigdís during the presidential election campaign.
Um leið og ég tíni ormana úr þorskinum
hvet ég þig til dáða
ég læt hnífinn vaða
í þorsk eftir þorsk
sem allir fá að heyra boðskapinn
áður en þeir falla í öskjurnar
og sigla til USA.
Um leið og ég vind bleyjurnar
og skelli óhreinum diskum í vask
sendi ég þér í huganum
þríf hastarlega til
í öllu mínu drasli,
reyni að beisla kraftinn
sem ætlaður er þér.
að barátta þín er fyrir okkur
hundruð mæðra í hundruðum eldhúsa
þúsunda ára daglegt strit
í harðbýlu landi.
og ég held áfram
að hvísla því að þorskinum
en þrái mest
að fræða son minn
í fyllingu tímans
um kjark þinn.
Elísabet Þorgeirsdóttir, 1980.
3.2 Election results
The presidential election was held on 29 June 1980 and generated a great deal of interest.
Many people took part in discussions, attended campaign meetings held by the candidates and aired their opinions in the newspapers. Polling stations closed at 11 o’clock in the evening with voter turnout registered at 90.5%. When final figures were announced at 6 o’clock the following morning, it became clear that Vigdís had been elected President of Iceland. She obtained a third of votes cast and it was not long until most of the nation supported her. The other three candidate called for the nation to unite in support for the new president.
As soon as the results of the election became official, an interview with Vigdís was broadcast on television and radio. A large crowd had gathered outside her home in Aragata to welcome her by the time she returned home at around 7 o’clock in the morning. Vigdís was wearing a handknitted dress that she had been presented with during the election campaign and that she had promised to wear only when victory had been won.
The results of the presidential elections of 29 June 1980 were as follows:
- Vigdís Finnbogadóttir 43.611 votes (33.8%)
- Gudlaugur Thorvaldsson 41.700 votes (32.3%)
- Albert Gudmundsson 25.599 votes (19.8%)
- Pétur J. Thorsteinsson 18.139 votes (14.1%)
Vigdís has often said that she welcomed the fact that the election results were so close since it showed that there had been a true fight for the presidency. The following letter was sent by a farmer’s wife in Northern Iceland to Svanhildur Halldórsdóttir, Vigdís’s campaign manager, on 1 July 1980: “I am writing these few lines to express my happiness on Vigdís’s election victory. It makes me view the future more positively, the fact that so many people voted for her, this brave and honest woman, the image of what should characterise every Icelander. And in my countrywoman’s eyes, Vigdís is charmingly Icelandic.” She included with her letter this poem by Valborg Bentsdóttir, saying that the sound of Vigdís speaking had reminded her of it.
Man shall be valued
The dream is a man’s worth.
No-one asking for charity.
Echoing in the peaks and on earth.
Freedom shall reign on earth
Equality, progress, peace.
According to Svanhildur Halldórsdóttir, there is no doubt that attitudes to women changed after Vigdís was elected and that women felt more self-confident. “She proved that we have what it takes to be leaders, it is not the prerogative of men. She proved that women are not inferior to men, something that we, her supporters, already knew. She stressed our roots – our cultural heritage – and led us out to the fields. Brought the position of President closer to the people and treated everyone as equals – women, men and children. She was a good spokesman for our nation in Iceland and abroad. Vigdís lived up to the expectations of those who supported her at this time and won over those who did not support her at the outset but who changed their tune later on. Today nobody is surprised if a woman applies for a top position – and I don’t think many people let someone’s family situation affect their opinion of people applying for positions of responsibility. That’s what has changed.
Vigdís herself has said that progress in matters of equality is proof that, as long as people are willing, an enormous amount can be done in a short period of time.
People speculated and commented on Vigdís’s gender throughout the election campaign and continued during the first years of her presidency. The eyes of the world turned to the saga island in the north and Icelanders sensed that a new leaf had been turned and that they had taken part in a world-changing event.
The election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttur as President of Iceland on 29 June 1980 attracted the attention of the world, understandably since she was the first woman to be democratically elected head of state. This historical event and Vigdís’s successful term of office drew attention to Iceland, the Icelandic people and Icelandic culture.