By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, artwork by Catrin Welz-Stein
What would happen if women stopped work? If they refused to go to their jobs in offices, hospitals, cafés, schools, and banks? If they refused to pick up the children, do the washing, cook the dinner, make the bed? What would happen if fifty per cent of the population went on strike?
That scenario was tested just under half a century ago when the women of Iceland, for one day, walked out on their everyday lives. Proposed by the women’s movement the Red Stockings, the 1975 strike was a way to force men to recognise the value of women’s paid and, critically, unpaid labour.
Dubbed “Women’s Day Off”, women from all walks of life – young and old, working class and upper class, and all sides of the political spectrum – rallied at a march in Reykjavík. The date was October 24 and a brass band belted out tunes, women gave rousing speeches, and rights were discussed.
A key reason for the strike’s success was the “involvement of the unions… showing the grounding of the action in working-class organising,” says Hannah McCann, a lecturer in gender studies at The University of Melbourne.
In a country with a population at the time of just 220,000, 90 per cent of women participated. And the impact was palpable. Factories had to slow down or stop operations for the day. Men, with no one to look after the kids, took them into work; they bribed them with sweets and, at home with no one to make the dinner, resorted to ready-made meals (in supermarkets, sausages sold out). The daily newspaper Morgunblaðið published half the usual number of pages with women returning to the newsroom after midnight to help push it through.
The day was referred to as “the long Friday”; without women, men found life tough. As attendee Elin Olafsdottir told The Guardian: “It was the real grassroots. It was, in all seriousness, a quiet revolution.”
“Women’s Day Off”, of course, came on the coattails of a larger worldwide movement. On 26 August 1970, 50,000 women had marched on New York’s Fifth Avenue, literally stopping traffic.
As Time magazine had written shortly beforehand, “virtually all of the nation’s systems – industry, unions, the professions, the military, the universities, even the organisations of the New Left – [were] quintessentially masculine establishments.”
In Iceland the strike had a long-lasting effect: just five years later, in 1980, divorced single mother Vigdís Finnbogadóttir won the election – and became the world’s first democratically elected female president (see interview on page 69). At the time of the strike only a meagre nine women had ever won seats in Icelandic parliament. Vigdís, however, went on to hold her post for 16 years, and by 1999 over a third of all MPs in the country were female.
Today Iceland is considered one of the world’s most progressive countries for women’s rights. Non-transferable paid parental leave was introduced in 2000. Just under eighty per cent of women work. There are mandatory quotas for corporate boards. As a result, Iceland has come first in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index for the last nine years.
Economics editor of ITV News, Noreena Hertz, wrote in The Guardian in 2016 that one clue to Iceland’s success is its unique history: “For centuries, this seafaring nation’s women stayed at home as their husbands traversed the oceans. Without men at home, women played the roles of farmer, hunter, architect, builder. They managed household finances and were crucial to the country’s ability to prosper.”
Battles remain, however. Last year, the country held another protest. Women left work at precisely 2.38pm on Monday 24th October. The timing was symbolic. Women still earn 14 to 18 per cent less than male colleagues in Iceland, meaning that during an eight-hour workday they are effectively toiling without pay after 2.38pm. Iceland Review reported that, based on trends over the decade, it will take another 52 years to achieve pay equality – a figure Iceland’s women weren’t going to take sitting down.
President of the Icelandic Confederation of Labor, Gylfi Arnbjörnsson told national broadcaster RUV: “No one puts up with waiting 50 years to reach a goal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a gender pay gap or any other pay gap. It’s just unacceptable to say we’ll correct this in 50 years. That’s a lifetime.”
Protests in Iceland work. In January the government introduced a new law requiring businesses with 25 or more staff to prove that they are paying men and women the same amount.
So what can the rest of the world learn from Iceland, in particular in the era of Trump? Globally the pay gap widened in 2017, according to the Global Gender Gap Report – for the first time since reporting began in 2006. In Australia, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency states that more than two-thirds of unpaid work, amounting to some $650 billion annually, is done by women. Australian women, meanwhile, suffer a 27 per cent gender pay gap. Australia sits at number 35 on the Global Gender Gap Report.
“The cultural idiom of ‘she’ll be right’ is actually an incredible insight into the psyche of Australians in that we prefer to absolve ourselves of responsibility to motivate change. That speaks to a misplaced trust in a system that is fundamentally flawed as well as a pervasive sense of slovenliness,” says filmmaker Sophie Mathieson, director of For Film’s Sake (FFS).
In 2016, Mathieson and fifteen others crashed Australia’s film and television academy in Sydney dressed up as giant sausages, making headlines nationally. They wanted to protest what Mathieson calls “Australia’s biggest sausage party”: in the film industry, just 16 per cent of film directors, 23 per cent of screenwriters, and 32 per- cent of producers are women.
“It’s fundamental we defend our rights and challenge those who threaten them,” she says. “Protest can never be a polite act, it’s messy and confronting but essentially it’s one of the only ways to convey a sense of solidarity between those whose rights have been impinged.”
Echoing the march of 1975 are, of course, today’s Women’s March rallies, which have brought millions of women together in over 600 marches held worldwide. The protests are reactive: there is a fear that under Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric, rights will be eroded not just in America, but globally.
While these are a start they “arguably do not have the clarity of demands and foundation in working class organisations that the 1975 strike in Iceland had,” points out McCann. “The overall lesson here might be that marches and strikes are most effective if they focus on clear and concrete demands relating to gender and economics, rather than more general demands for equality.”
Still, “if the women’s marches continue year on year, then essentially they are achieving a kind of endurance protest, which I think is clever and may do much in the creation of new feminist traditions,” argues Mathieson. “I think it’s important not to position one action as a game-changer but rather to see that all actions, big and little, collective and individual, work together to achieve a shared outcome.”
In Iceland, at least, women can look to the past for inspiration. In the 1975 strike one of the speakers’ husbands was asked by a co-worker why he let his woman “howl” in public places, adding: “I would never let my woman do such a thing.” As the BBC reported, the husband shot back: “She is not the sort of woman who would ever marry a man like you.”