Iceland’s Extraordinary Women

Iceland’s Extraordinary Women

Canadian-Icelandic Eliza Jean Reid (b. 1976) has been a freelance writer for multiple Icelandic magazines and editor of the Icelandic Stopover from 2012 to 2016. In 2004, she became the First Lady of Iceland through her marriage to Icelandic President Guõni Th. Jóhannesson. In 2020, she published the book about her adopted country and its progressive gender politics, ‘Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women’.

At 27, she moved to Iceland ‘for love’, after falling for “a curly-haired single Viking dad she met at Oxford University, Gudni Johannesson, a Ph.D. student. At that time she had completed her MA degree in modern history.

Learning the Icelandic language was key to Reid’s assimilation. She studied at the University of Iceland in the evenings while working full time in marketing for a software start-up. After two years of study and years of living in Iceland she now speaks Icelandic fluently.

Iceland’s Extraordinary Women
Learning the Icelandic language was key to Reid’s assimilation.

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In 2017, the Panama Papers implicated the sitting prime minister and his wife in financial impropriety. At that time, the country, fresh from its recession, erupted in protest. Johannesson appeared on television for six hours straight, commenting on the situation — and was promptly drafted to run for president, winning handily.

In October 2020 her book ‘Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World was announced, and was published by Sourcebooks in the US and Simon & Schuster in Canada in 2022.  The book was well-received and gained endorsements from numerous high-profile authors, as well as from Hillary Clinton, and became a national bestseller in Canada.

As a foreign-born Icelander, she has raised the immigrant population’s profile in a country stereotyped for its ethnic homogeneity.  She ran up against traditional expectations of the role in egalitarian Iceland and decided to lean into the goal of modernizing the job, requesting speaking engagements and pushing back on the media’s tendency to cover political spouses as ‘arm candy for their husbands’. “If there is anywhere from which to challenge these outdated gendered-based assumptions,” Reid writes, “Iceland is it.”

Iceland’s Extraordinary Women
Reid’s husband Icelandic President Guõni Th. Jóhannesson at Blejski strateški forum 2022. Photo: Nebojša Tejić

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Reid is known as a vocal proponent and advocate for women’s rights and gender-parity. In 2019, she was honored in Berlin with an award on International Women’s Day. On June 19, 2017, during the 102nd anniversary of women’s right to vote in Iceland, Reid advocated for gender rights and acknowledged there is still much work for Iceland to do in this regard. In March 2018, Reid gave a keynote speech at the Young Women Business Leaders.

In 2014, she co-founded the Icelandic Writers Retreat, drawn in part from Reykavik’s status as a Unesco City of Literature. Six year’s later, she published her book, after heading across Iceland to meet sprakkar – or extraordinary women. “A guest’s eyes see more clearly,” she says, quoting an Icelandic saying about the advantage of an outsider.

On 31 August 2019, Reid used her public Facebook page to respond to an opinion article by Zoe Williams in the British newspaper The Guardian, which criticized the media coverage of the spouses of global leaders attending the 2019 G7 conference, writing “I make a concerted effort not to be seen as an accessory to my husband”. She has also been vocal about the undefined nature of being the partner of a head of state, and the perils and opportunities of that situation.

As the subject of her book suggests, Reid is passionate about Iceland’s hard-earned reputation for gender equality. She was pleasantly surprised that no one batted an eyelid when her first employer’s board president breast-fed while chairing a meeting. Women hold leadership roles across society, from the bishop of Iceland to the national police commissioner.

The IIPT Celebrating Her Awards – Eliza Jean Reid, United Nations Special Ambassador for Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals.

For the last dozen years running, Iceland has landed the No. 1 spot on the World Economic Forum’s list of countries closest to achieving gender equality. (The United States trudges in at No. 30.) It has more women in Parliament than any other country without quotas (nearly 48 percent, versus the US Congress’s 27 percent), and was the first nation on the planet to democratically elect a female head of state (Vigdis Finnbogadottir, in 1980). It’s also the most peaceful country in the world.

Reid is now in the process of writing her second book, a mystery novel. It will of course be set in Iceland and have a strong female lead.

Iceland’s Extraordinary Women, written by Tor Kjolberg

Iceland is not part of Scandinavia, but the Nordic region. For this reason, Daily Scandinavian has for years omitted Finland and Iceland from our editorial content. We have now decided it’s time to include these important Nordic countries in our editorial scope. Many people, including Scandinavians, are confused when it  comes to the Scandinavian subregion, which consists of Denmark, Norway and Sweden only. (Editor’s notes).


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