Eliza Reid, the first lady of Iceland, thinks the tiny island nation that is her adopted home has something to teach the world when it comes to gender equality. For the past 12 years, Iceland, with a population roughly half the size of Boston’s, has ranked number one in the world for gender parity, according to a World Economic Forum index that looks at employment, education, health, and politics. In her new book, “Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World,” being released Tuesday in the United States, Reid describes the people and policies that she sees as models for women everywhere. In January, I connected with her over Zoom. The following is a condensed, edited version of our conversation.
You grew up in Canada and immigrated to Iceland with your now-husband Guðni Th. Jóhannesson almost 20 years ago. What did you find surprising about gender roles when you first arrived in Iceland?
My first job here was working in the marketing department of a small tech startup, which was very male-dominated, and there weren’t very many women who worked there — except the chair of the board of the company was a woman. She had just returned from maternity leave, and she was nursing her baby while chairing a board meeting. In this testosterone-laden environment, nobody blinked an eye, nobody made a joke; it was just an utterly normal and unremarkable part of a meeting.
You said that when you moved to Iceland you were also struck by what you called “stigma-free sexuality.” What did you mean?
Stigma surrounding sexuality is a very important component of equality, because when women are shamed for being sexual beings and men are praised for the same thing, that sets different goals and values between the genders. In Iceland, there’s less stigma than in North America surrounding one-night stands. Women will go to a nightclub or a bar and they’ll pick someone up and take them home and come back the next day and meet someone else, and there isn’t a stigma attached to that. And a large majority of first babies are born to unwed mothers. Most of those unwed mothers are in a relationship with the other parent, but there’s no stigma surrounding single mothers. Now, we also see high rates of gender-based violence in Iceland. People call this the Nordic paradox; people don’t know whether that’s because there’s actually more cases of gender-based violence here or because there’s less stigma and people come forward and talk about it.
You had four kids, are a stepmom to a fifth kid, and you built a career as a journalist and as the founder of the Iceland Writers’ Retreat. What ingredients made it possible to pull that off?
Coffee, obviously. But also maternity benefits and paternity leave, and the excellent child care in Iceland from the age of 1. I was also very fortunate in that I was in a very happy and loving partnership with somebody who shared child-rearing responsibility. I could choose my own hours because I was self-employed, but also my house was always a mess and I washed my hair like twice a week.
Iceland is a small country — with only about 350,000 people. You talk about how Iceland ranks high on measures of gender equality and inclusion of LGBTQ members of society, but do you think that actually translates to larger countries?
One of the advantages of being a small country is that you can see positive results of change relatively rapidly, and so it builds momentum for those policies, like heavily subsidized child care and parental leave. Iceland has worked to ensure the rights of trans individuals in the law. But some of the things I write about in my book are changes that women in Iceland have made that I think can inspire others to be able to make changes within their own lives and communities and workplaces and societies. They have to do with pushing our comfort zones, following our dreams, being role models for other people and being consumers of media and culture and arts and sports with gender-equality glasses — buying books from women and listening to music by women and giving more attention to female sports teams.
It still seems to me that it would be easier to get government to respond to cultural changes like this in a smaller society where people have more direct access to political leaders and institutions.
Yes, people here often went to school with or are related to or know someone who is a sitting member of Parliament. And if not, there is a more direct relationship; people will just send a Facebook message to their parliamentarian to ask a question about something that’s going on. But one might argue that is a disadvantage, for immigrants, for example, who haven’t been raised with the network of neighbors and relatives and primary school friends.
You talk in the book about learning the Icelandic language, which isn’t easy to learn even if you are married to an Icelander and can be a barrier for immigrants to integrate into society. But I liked how you also talk about the upsides of having pride in an old language — Icelanders don’t just adopt English terms for new technologies but instead invoke old words to create new words in their native tongue, like using a term that means “crawling dragon” for an armored tank.
One of the best examples is the word tölva for computer, which means literally “number prophet.” But this phenomenon also relates to gender, because when queer Icelanders wanted to develop a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, they just created the term hán [which resembles the words for he and she].
Your book is called “Secrets of the Sprakkar” — sprakkar being an Icelandic word that means “extraordinary women.” But you told me that many Icelanders don’t even know what the word means. So why did you use it?
It’s a very obscure old word, and it was fun to do talks when the book was released in Iceland [in 2021], introducing Icelanders to this word. Someone made this point to me: that it’s a word that only applies to women, and that if you think about words in the English language that only apply to women, you have trouble thinking of positive words. Just the fact that this word exists in the Icelandic language I think also says something about gender and gender equality.