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Icelandic women strike for economic and social equality, 1975
There were many organizations dedicated to the realization of full women’s rights in Iceland in 1975, drawing from a history of previous women’s movements that dealt with the issues of suffrage, national independence, and equal rights. Such movements had lost momentum since the 1920s when groups of women had put together women’s slates for election to parliament and municipal governments.
In 1975 the United Nations declared the International Women’s Year. When this was announced a group of representatives from five major women’s rights organizations, including the Women’s Liberation Movement, or Redstockings, met to plan events for the year. One such event they planned was a women’s “day off” to show the importance of women for Iceland’s economic and social well-being.
Those women who worked outside of the home in Iceland made less than 60 percent of the wages that men made. Women were also often unable to get jobs because they did most, if not all, of the housework and child rearing. The goal of the strike was to protest the wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices by demonstrating the crucial roles of women in Icelandic society.
Women were not to attend work if they had paid jobs, nor do any of the housework or child-care they normally did. The women’s organizations spread word of the “day off” quickly through the small country of 220,000 people. Employers prepared for the presence of large numbers of children who would have to come to work with their fathers. The strike was scheduled for October 24, 1975.
When the day arrived, 90 percent of Icelandic women participated. There was no telephone service. Newspapers were not printed because all the typesetters were women. Theaters shut down because actresses refused to work. Schools closed, or operated at limited capacity, because the majority of teachers were female. Airline flights were cancelled because flight attendants did not work that day. Bank executives had to work as tellers to keep the banks open because the female tellers had taken the day off.
Meanwhile the men had to take their kids to work and provide them with food because daycares were closed and women would not do any of the work they normally did at home.
A mass meeting was scheduled in the center of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, which 25,000 women attended. The women created huge traffic jams as they walked to the meeting where speakers addressed the inequality of women in Icelandic society and the necessity of a female perspective in national politics.
The strike lasted until midnight that night, when the typesetters returned to work on papers for the next day. These papers contained nothing besides articles on the women’s strike.
The next year, Iceland’s parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal rights to women and men. Although this 1976 law did little to change the disparity in wages and employment for women, it was a large political step towards true equality. The strikers had clearly achieved their goal and demonstrated the undeniable importance of women and their work in Iceland. The strike also paved the way for the election of Iceland’s, and the world’s, first democratically elected female president five years later.
Gender inequality is still an issue in Iceland and every ten years, on the anniversary of this initial strike, women stop all work to demonstrate their important positions and continue the struggle for equality.