Interview
27 Sep 2018

Sisters in the Struggle -- when 90% of Iceland's women went on strike

On October 24, 1975, 90% of Iceland's women took the "day off" -- no work, and no housework, either. Now, 43 years later, some of the women involved in the strike recall the effort it took to bring the country to a halt. 

Wysokie Obcasy
Karolina Domagalska Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Sisters in the Struggle -- when 90% of Iceland's women went on strike - NewsMavens
Reykjavik protest, Oct 24,1 975, Wikimedia Commons

--The following fragments from Karolina Domagalska's interview with leaders of the Icelandic women’s strike of 1975 originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in March 2017.

On October 24, 1975, women in Iceland went on strike to demonstrate the importance of women to Iceland’s economy and society as well as to protest wage inequality and other gender-related social injustices. The women who participated (90% of Iceland’s female population) did not go to work nor did they do any housework or child care during that day.

For 43 years, the Icelandic women’s strike has been an object of pride, inspiration, and envy. What resulted from their success? And what made the World Economic Forum recognize Iceland for seven years as first on the list of countries with the highest level of gender equality?

Women's work is not serious work

In Iceland in 1975, it was not unsual to hear men dismiss demands for gender equality: “You only work so you can buy lipstick and cotton pads. Your work is supplementary, not serious. Why do you want preschools? You should raise children yourselves. You don’t have anything else to do, after all.”

So Iceland’s women showed them how important women's work actually was.

On October 24, 1975, 90% of Iceland's women in communities all across the country were on strike and 25,000 of them spent their day at a protest in Reykjavik, a significant number considering the country's population was only 220,000.

For the whole day, men were solely responsible for their family; they had to make their own meals and take care of the children. Schools were at least partially closed because most of the teachers were women, so many men had to bring their children to work. Bank directors and store managers had to step out of their offices and work as cashiers. It became impossible to make international phone calls because male supervisors couldn’t handle the volume of requests. Flights were cancelled when flight attendants did not come to work. The media also had to surrender -- newspapers were not printed because most of the typesetters were women. In hospitals, female nurses only worked on critical care wards. For lunch and dinner most men resorted to eating sausages, and the shops that were open quickly ran out of those. For the whole day, Iceland was essentially cut off from the rest of the world. 

In the memoirs of men who described this event later, the day was called “the long Friday.” But Iceland’s women celebrated, for they had successfully brought the country to a halt.

“Sisters in struggle!” began Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdóttir in her speech to the crowds at the Reykjavik rally that day. She was a caretaker for the elderly, and represented working-class women on the strike's organizing committee. She is also engraved in everyone’s memory as the star of the day. “Something remarkable was decided back in June 1975, that all women in Iceland would take this day off. The effect of that is today’s enormous crowd!”

A conference is called

“In order to mobilize as many women as possible, we began by organizing a conference on the topic of women in low-wage professions,” Gudrun Águstsdóttir, age 70,  recounts – she has brought [to the interview] a box of souvenirs, newspapers, clippings, books and even the dress she wore to the protest.

“We invited whoever was able to come. Someone invited Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdóttir, who was later one of the stars of the strike."

"It was incredible -- working class women, working hard but earning pennies, met and saw that they weren’t alone."

"I was delegated to speak on behalf of the Redstockings [a radical feminist organization established in New York in 1969, which had spread to Europe and Iceland], because at this time, I didn’t yet have any graduate education. I’d finished nursing school and I worked for a labor union," said Águstsdóttir.

"That was the first time that I presented an idea that came into our heads some time before, that on October 24, the day designated by the UN as the day to celebrate the "Year of the Woman", we would organize a nationwide women’s strike. When we asked the attendees if we should go on strike, the women began to cheer."

Points in the manifesto for the October strike included such things as:

-Calling out obvious discrimination when advertisements for low-wage work were directed only to women.

-Criticism of the fact that farmers’ wives were not permitted to be members of a labor union, though they were working as much, if not more than men.

-Denouncing the average difference in monthly salaries between women and men which amounted to 30,000 kroner (about 100 euros). (Among women on both the right and the left, this data caused similar outrage.) 

We do not have to agree on every issue

“The [other] tough thing that we [were fighting] for at that time was for the right to abortion,” recalls Gudrun. “[But], it was not insignificant that the struggle over the right to abortion was on its own track and was not attached to the demands of the strike. A fight over reproductive rights would hardly lead to the unification of all women. But the undervaluing of paid and unpaid labor harmed all women equally.”

“It was very difficult, [but we eventually won this battle as well],” Gudrun says. “The doctors were stubborn at the beginning, but later they joined us. Our greatest opponent, a gynecologist, eventually became our ally. Also important was the voice of a woman doctor from the conservative party, who supported a woman’s right to free choice. She wrote an article about it in the newspaper. All of this meant that on May 27, 1975 [after the conference, but before the strike], Iceland adopted a law that permitted abortion for social reasons up to the third month of pregnancy.”

The strike was only one day, but its influence has never faded

The effect of the strike was poignant and important for many Icelandic women. 

“We made a mistake by not officially calling the women’s protest of 1975 a ‘strike’. The official name was Kvennafri, or ‘women’s day off.’ But the truth is that, in spite of the name, it was a strike. And [it] was a trigger" states Gudrun Águstsdóttir. 

"Of course the next day, apart from the hangover and men’s teasing, nothing special happened. The world looked unchanged. But certain processes could no longer be stopped.” 

“I observed, for instance, the emancipation of my own mother,” observed Gudrun Jónsdóttir from "Stigamót", an Education and Counseling Center for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Violence. “My father was a truck driver; Mama took care of the house. And at this time, she decided to go to night school, and later on to college. My father and siblings didn’t know what was going on. The house wasn’t cleaned, food wasn’t cooked, and step by step they had to learn to do it themselves. She had resigned from that business.”

Political power was women’s next goal. A year after the strike, the Gender Equality Council was established, which introduced the Gender Equality Act forbidding sex discrimination.

But the event that changed the political landscape forever was the election of Vigdis Finnbogadóttir in 1980, the world’s first woman president. “If the women’s strike had not happened, I would not have had the opportunity to be elected,” she said after the vote.

In this same year, the Redstockings ceased their activities in Iceland. After the strike, there was enormous interest in this movement, and everyone joined -- Maoists, Trotskyites, Stalinists. The truth, however, was that what the organization had to offer was slowly becoming outdated. Women needed another umbrella. Not everyone wanted to sing the “Internationale” and fight for the working class.

“For me this was a very important change. I always felt that I was a bad feminist, because I didn’t know how to change a tire, and I didn’t persuade my husband to learn to use a sewing machine,” replies Gudrun Jónsdóttir. “According to the Redstockings, equality depended on men and women doing the same thing. Later came the political party known as the “Women’s List,” in which we changed our ideology. We wanted to take advantage of women’s experience, and fight for equal opportunity based on who we were. And at last I could stop feeling guilty that I couldn’t change a car tire.”

Gerdur Steinpórsdóttir, one of the eight women leading the strike and a teacher by profession, had worked in the Reykjavik city council since 1971. “There were exceptionally few women there, and only women were concerned about such issues as maternity leave and child care, which men didn’t focus on. It was key that more and more women represented women’s interests in politics. I worked in the city council for 16 years, and sat on various committees. I did not join the Women’s List, because we also had women in the Progressive Party, and I could function just as well there.”

The Women’s List was active for 19 years. It introduced six representatives to parliament. Previously there had been two.

“[The Women's List] was not supposed to last forever, its purpose was only to mobilize women. And we ran it our way, we turned our party hierarchy upside down. Our party had a horizontal structure. We switched off roles and also had a principle that we always appeared in pairs, particularly at the beginning, when we were inexperienced."

"The men had a fit. In order to compete with us, they had to consider women’s issues, and suddenly all parties had to become feminist. Now this is a requirement.”

“The 1975 women’s strike showed that women could unite in spite of different world views. When we organize a protest, people come because they recognize it as their obligation,” says Brynhildur Heidar-ogÓmarsdóttir from the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association. “It is part of our tradition and national pride. After the last parliamentary elections there were 30 women, and 33 men in power, and this is under a conservative ruling coalition. At a certain level, changes in the presence of women in social life can no longer be stopped.”

***

Translated from Polish by David A. Goldfarb

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