-- this article by Anna J. Dudek was originally published by Polish women's weekly Wysokie Obcasy
On 24 October 1975 Icelandic women held a national strike because they were fed up with unequal pay and undervalued female labor. Back then Halla Tómasdóttir was seven. Five years later, in 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir won the general election, making Iceland the first country in the world ruled by a female president. With sixteen years in the office, she remains the longest-serving female head of state in history.
Who am I to run for president?
“I’ll never forget the day president Vigdís (we always use first names) won the election,” recalled Halla Tómasdóttir years later. “I watched her step out on the balcony of her house - a single mom with her daughter at her side."
Admiring the newly elected president of Iceland, Halla Tómasdóttir was not yet aware how this moment would shape her future and inspire her to run for the same office many years later. President Vigdís would often relate an anecdote about a boy who came up to her during her second term in office and with all seriousness asked whether it’s true that boys could be presidents too?
Halla (also customarily called in Iceland by her first name) brought up this story in 2017 during a Ted Talk she gave following her loss in the presidential election. Tómasdóttir spoke of what she had learned From the experience.
“Role models play a crucial part in our lives often determining our decisions. But even with a model as powerful as Vigdís, my initial response to the candidacy proposition was highly skeptical. I remember thinking: Who am to run for president?” she told the audience.
According to American studies 62 percent of men and only 45 percent of women would consider standing for office.
“It’s a 16 percent gap, exactly the same as a decade ago which is a shame because the world needs female leaders and fair, principle-based leadership.” she insisted. “My decision to run came down to the fact that I felt that I had to do my part, even though I had no prior political background.”
Two qualified men
The Icelandic presidential race began with twenty candidates. This number shrank to nine and eventually to four people: three men and one woman - Halla.
Announcing his resignation due to financial scandal, sitting president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson said he was not worried– he was leaving the country in the hands of two qualified men. Two. Men.
On May 2016, 45 days before the election, Halla's odds of winning were low. The election polls showed 1 percent of the vote which excluded her from the first live debate, due to a broadcasters' rule that only candidates with at least 2.5 percent of support can participate. Luckily, on the day of debate Tómasdóttir reached exactly 2.5 percent thereby qualifying to join her opponents in the studio.
‘Are you going to quit the presidential race?’ was the first question Halla heard. “It wasn’t easy.” - she said thinking of all challenges she had to overcome during the campaign, including media bias.
While the expected winner made about 87 appearances on TV, she had only been seen 31 times.
“There are those who say gender doesn’t matter when it comes to media and politics but I cannot agree. I’m not saying media does it consciously, as bias can also be unconscious,but we need the courage to talk about it if we really want things to change,” she added.
Halla on Facebook and Snapchat
It’s hard to deny her point: she was the only candidate who never got a front page interview and was often left out during public discussions.
“On the bright side, I was rarely asked about my outfit or my hair,” she laughed.
Halla forged her lack of political background and scant media coverage into her greatest asset.“It actually inspired us to improve and innovate our campaign strategy.” she said.
With limited access to mainstream media, Tómasdóttir turned to social networks and started communicating with her potential voters directly, online. Running Facebook live discussions and responding to all questions on the spot, she stood out as an honest and trustworthy candidate.
“Determined to reach the youngest voters I became a Snapchatter,” she recalls.
With her openness, sincerity and sense of humor she quickly became the young generation’s favorite.
Ultimately, however, it was historian and lecturer Guðni Th. Jóhannesson won the presidency with 39.1 percent of the vote. Halla Tómasdóttir - the only female candidate, who started her campaign with 1 percent, came in second, supported by 27.9 percent of Icelanders.
“Some people called me the real winner of the election and encouraged me to run again but what really made me proud and happy was the trust and support I was given by young people. They are already urging my 12-year-old daughter to run for office in 2040.” she said. “I was watching her on election day. She was smart, self-confident and supportive of her mother. This was the highlight of my campaign,” she added noticeably moved.
Halla recalled another heartening moment during her election race - the day she saw a group of Icelandic schoolgirls at the bus stop, trying to hug her campaign poster.
“For me, that was the true victory. We can be anything we want to be, so screw fear!” she said during her TED speech, earning a big round of applause.
“On election night we celebrated as if we had won. You don’t need to win the presidency. What matters is that you run for it - for yourself, for your friends and family, for everyone you’re working with. It’s time for women to stand for office, be it the office of CEO or the office of president,” she says.
“41 years after the first national strike, Iceland is considered the best place in the world for women. However, our job is not done. That’s why women walked out of workplaces and joined the protest at 2.38pm today,” Halla commented on the women’s strike in October 2016.
Every year since 2005 women of Iceland leave work and take to the streets at 2.38 pm. The timing is no coincidence -
statistics show that due to the inequality of pay between male and female employees, women have already earned their daily wage by 2:38 pm. Any work they do after this is unpaid.
Due to legislation changes, such as the recently enforced Act on the Equal Status and Equal Rights for Women and Men, or new regulations imposing financial penalties on companies violating a national equal pay standard, the country’s gender pay gap is shrinking. To reflect this progress Icelandic women start their national strike a few minutes later every year.
Even though Iceland has already overcome 87 percent of its gender inequality based problems, coming in on top in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, the country’s fight continues.
And it’s all happening thanks to women like Halla Tómasdóttir.
Halla Tómasdóttir's philosophy is based on three simple rules
1. The challenges we're facing today can't be solved by testosterone alone
2. The world would be better, safer and more sustainable if there was gender balance in finance, business and politics
3. It's easier to change things from the inside.
--Translated by Martyna Kardach. Original commissioned for and published by Wysokie Obcasy