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The Day Women Brought Iceland to a Standstill

On October 24, 1975 over 90 percent of Icelandic women refused to work. The aim: to show how much society depended on women’s labor, from farms and factories to the home.

25,000 women gathered in Reykjavik for the Women’s Strike, October 24, 1975. Icelandic Women’s History Archives

“Women are waking up. They know that men have ruled the world since time immemorial. And how has that world been?” These words were first spoken by Aðalheiður Bjarnfreðsdóttir, a fifty-four-year-old domestic worker, on an unusually warm and dry afternoon in fall 1975. Her audience, in her speech in Reykjavík’s main square, included 25,000 women from all walks of life. They, along with 90 percent of Iceland’s female population, had refused to show up for work that day, in order to demonstrate how much they contributed to the country’s economy. It made no difference whether their work took place in a school, factory, office, or home. They were determined to show that they mattered.

The women’s strike — or, for less radical supporters, “day off” — of October 24, 1975 was, in this sense, a success. The action brought the economy to a standstill, forcing Iceland to recognize how much it depended on women’s labor. The massive turnout also ushered in an era of heightened political participation among women, which has contributed substantially to Iceland’s international reputation as a front-runner in gender equality. Yet not all women gained equally from the action — and its legacy for the women it was meant to serve remains sharply contested.

Redstockings

The idea for a nationwide women’s strike did not simply appear from nowhere — rather, it required organization. Indeed, the plan originated within Iceland’s Redstockings, a radical-feminist movement established in 1970 by a group of young women in their twenties and thirties. Most were middle class, well-educated, and employed in fields from teaching and office work to the visual arts.

Many of these women had lived abroad, where they had first been introduced to feminism, and indeed the Redstockings’ name ultimately harked back to a similarly titled group that formed in New York in 1969. In April 1970 a Danish group called Rødstrømperne (Redstockings) marched down the main shopping street in Copenhagen in red stockings and large hats, and on May 1 an announcement was made on Icelandic National Radio encouraging “women in red stockings” to join Labor Day marches.

Over the 1970s, the Redstockings led the fight for women’s labor and reproductive rights in Iceland, as they campaigned for sexual and reproductive education, abortion rights, equal pay for women, and recognition as breadwinners in the labor market. The movement was on the Left, compared to more established women’s associations, and leaned even further this way as more and more socialist and communist women joined.

Already at the Redstockings’ first general meeting in 1970, a motion was presented for a general women’s strike. Such an idea was not wholly without precedent: activists may have been influenced by the Women’s Strike for Equality in the United States that same year, commemorating fifty years of women winning the right to vote. The organizers of this action gave talks on their efforts in various European countries, including the Scandinavian nations where many Icelandic women were educated. But in Iceland itself, a women’s strike remained a fantasy until the United Nations declared that 1975 would be a year dedicated to women.

International Women’s Year

The Icelandic preparations for this “International Women’s Year” began in early 1974. That June, three women’s organizations — the Federation of Women’s Associations, the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, and the Women’s Student Association — invited women from other interest groups to attend a planning meeting, and there the Redstockings’ representative Vilborg Sigurðardóttir suggested that they should organize a one-day women’s strike.

The idea met with opposition from the other associations and was temporarily put to one side. However, the Redstockings were not discouraged. They kicked off International Women’s Year in January 1975 by organizing a conference, in cooperation with the labor unions, on the conditions of women in minimum-wage occupations. At the conference, the idea of a women’s strike was well received by low-income women, and a motion was passed which stated that “all Icelandic women should abandon their work for one day during the year in order to emphasize women’s contribution to the labor force and in the home.”

Women union activists were enthusiastic about the strike idea, and it gained considerable support as it started circulating by word of mouth among low-income women, after two conferences organized by the Redstockings and labor unions over the spring. The idea received further impetus in May, as the prime minister’s office appointed a steering committee for International Women’s Year including labor representatives and figures from both established and more radical feminist organizations, including the Redstockings.

In June 1975 this committee organized a conference to plan events for the fall, and here a motion for a women’s strike was again made, this time tabled by eight women carefully selected as representatives of various groups in order to gain broad-based support. Among the eight were liberals and conservatives, teachers, store clerks, office managers, and single mothers.

This time, the motion passed, but concessions had to be made. Some of the right-leaning women thought that a strike (verkfall in Icelandic) would be too radical. In order to ensure solidarity across the political spectrum, the June conference agreed to urge women to “take a day off” instead. In reference to the UN origins of International Women’s Year, they chose United Nations Day — October 24 — for a Kvennafrí, or a Women’s Day Off. Nonetheless, as historian Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir notes, the day has frequently been called the Women’s Strike, or Kvennaverkfall.

For the Redstockings, the event continued to be a strike, despite the name change — and left-wing media followed suit. The Alþýðublaðið newspaper, owned by the Social Democratic Party, declared that its male employees would not be strikebreakers, for instance refusing to answer the telephone while the female receptionist was striking. Among the general population, there was understandably some confusion about whether men were allowed to fill women’s roles in the workplace on October 24.

Preparations

Plans nonetheless continued apace, involving wider circles of labor and women’s activists. The eight women who had proposed the strike formed a provisional working committee, which then invited all labor unions, women’s associations, and other interest groups to nominate a representative to a joint committee, which ultimately numbered around fifty members. In September, they appointed an executive committee responsible for the overall handling of the day’s events, as well as five working groups to coordinate promotion, media, fundraising, programming, and communication with women organizing strikes outside the capital area.

With October 24 fast approaching, the women plunged into preparations. The fundraising committee produced stickers for sale and contacted labor unions and organizations for financial support. The union for female domestic and care workers, Sókn, was the first to contribute financially, even though its members lived off the country’s lowest wages. Organizers’ main argument as they circulated posters and flyers was that women’s contribution to Icelandic society was undervalued. Women received lower salaries than men in similar occupations and were not represented on the main negotiating committee of the Icelandic Confederation of Labor (ASÍ). Flyers also invoked the lack of support for working mothers and the undervaluation of the contribution of female farmers, housewives, and other groups of women.

Dozens of women worked furiously over September and October to organize the Women’s Day Off, and met with support from most media and workplaces. There were also a few attempts to undermine their efforts with derogatory remarks — for instance, asking whether the Women’s Day Off also extended to the bedroom — and by spreading rumors that women would be laid off permanently if they failed to work on International Women’s Day. These attempts were largely unsuccessful.

Indeed, it is estimated that 90 percent of women in Iceland did not show up for work on October 24, 1975. And the strike brought the Icelandic economy to a standstill. Schools, nurseries, shops, and factories closed, and men had to step in by either staying at home or bringing their children to work. There were over twenty rallies organized all over the country, but the biggest event took place in Lækjartorg, the main square in downtown Reykjavík, 25,000 women attending — just under half of the entire female population in the capital area.

On the stage in Lækjartorg, a girls’ marching band opened the rally, which included theatrical performances, sing-alongs, and addresses by the only female MPs, Svava Jakobsdóttir and Sigurlaug Bjarnadóttir, as well as speeches from Björg Einarsdóttir, a salesclerk, Ásthildur Ólafsdóttir, a housewife, and Aðalheiður Bjarnfreðsdóttir, a domestic worker. It was Aðalheiður who captured the hearts and minds of the audience, speaking without notes about the disrespect women faced in their work. They were considered an auxiliary workforce, to be called out when work was plenty but sent home when it became scarce. She believed that women were a force for change and would, in time, have something to show for their efforts and solidarity. Her famous words are still widely remembered.

A Legacy for Today

Today, Aðalheiður Bjarnfreðsdóttir’s predictions ring true, as the Women’s Day Off (or Women’s Strike) has become a prominent feature of Iceland’s image as a front-runner in gender equality. This image is often promoted in foreign media, which usually holds up Iceland as a positive counterexample to realities in other countries. For example, during a conference on gender violence in Reykjavík last September, Angela Davis evoked the memory of the Women’s Strike in contrast to “the grave political predicament” of her own homeland in the United States.

Yet despite this positive image — often overstated in order to emphasize the need to export an “example” — the tangible impact of the Women’s Day Off on Icelandic women’s lives is harder to pinpoint. It certainly called attention to injustices towards women — on October 24, most news media ran stories on the conditions women in Iceland faced. Two national daily newspapers covered the topic extensively in the lead-up to the day and continued to feature stories on gender inequality throughout the year. The strike also built bridges between groups of women that held very different views on how to advocate for gender equality and women’s rights.

The Redstockings, however, were ambivalent about the outcome of the strike and the International Women’s Year in general. In 1978, the “equality page” of the social-democratic newspaper Alþýðublaðið interviewed three women from the Redstockings movement, Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, Vilborg Harðardóttir, and Guðrún Helgadóttir. Towards the end of the conversation, the interviewer brought up the topic of the Women’s Day Off and particularly the concessions the Redstockings made to build solidarity among the diverse group of women organizing the event. When she asks if it had implications for the Redstockings, Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir answered: “Yes, it castrated the movement.”

Her namesake, Vilborg Harðardóttir, added that while the strike managed to reach the masses, it had a negative effect on the Redstockings and the women they wanted to politicize. The Redstockings had wanted to galvanize working-class women to take political action and create a feminist movement rooted in the lower rungs of the social hierarchy. Instead, as they saw it, the change of label, from Women’s Strike to Women’s Day Off, had undermined the event’s political momentum.

Guðrún Helgadóttir compared the event to women taking their kids to see the annual festivities on the Icelandic national holiday. For her, looking back in 1978, the rallies on the Women’s Day Off did not seem like a real fight for recognition of women’s worth. But Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir conceded that the event may at least have made a difference for women who had never participated in political action. “In reality, the women’s day was unfocused, feeble and really just a show. Still, women realized that they were a force. That they were many and that they were strong. They realized that they could stand in solidarity with one another.”

It was perhaps this sense of solidarity that soon led to a significant increase in women’s political participation. In 1980, Iceland became the first nation to democratically elect a female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. In 1982, a group of women that included the Redstockings decided to put together a women-only ballot for the Reykjavík municipal elections. A year later, some of these women established the new political party named Kvennalistinn or Women’s Alliance, which ran for Parliament from 1983 to 1999, when it became part of the social-democratic coalition party named Samfylkingin. Historian Kristín Jónsdóttir has emphasized these two parties’ considerable effect on Icelandic politics: they brought issues usually considered private, such as gender-based violence, into the political arena and also fought for day care, longer parental leave, and women’s shelters. This period also saw a significant increase in women’s representation in parliament — the proportion of women MPs rose from 5 percent in 1983 to 25 percent in 1995.

The Women’s Day Off has also left a mark on feminist movements internationally. Since 1975, the event has been repeated five times in Iceland, in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016, and 2018. Even though participation has never been as good as in 1975, historian of ideas Valgerður Pálmadóttir insists that these reoccurrences have ensured the event’s national and international legacy. Indeed, the idea of such a strike has also spread elsewhere. In October 2016, Polish women went on a one-day strike to protest a bill attempting to criminalize abortion, specifically claiming to follow tradition of Icelandic women from 1975. A few days later, women in Argentina organized a one-hour national women’s strike, calling attention to violence against women. Since then, the International Women’s Strike has been staged in at least fifty countries around the world.

On a national level, it seems the Women’s Strike, or Women’s Day Off, marked the beginnings of a movement that managed to lift the glass ceiling for middle-class women in politics and other professional sectors. When it comes to benefits for women further down the social hierarchy, the gains are less clear, despite the groundwork laid by the labor unions and the Redstockings in preparation for the International Women’s Year. “Running faster to stay in the same place” is how Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, the chair of the union for unskilled workers Efling, recently described the work of low-income women in Iceland today. For them, the glass ceiling is still as firmly in place as it was in 1975.