Party Gains Strength : Feminists of Iceland Aim to Call Shots

Times Staff Writer

And now, from the feminists of Iceland, who have historically startled the world with the vigor of their periodic uprisings, comes the Women’s Alliance, their most ambitious undertaking yet.

The Alliance is a political party for women only. Its officially stated purpose is to see that women win their “fair share” of power in government, and, in its more moderate moments, it doesn’t say that men are inferior to women, only “otherwise.”

But, as members freely concede to anybody who asks, what they actually believe is that, generally speaking, men are inherently self-centered, short-sighted, insensitive, unimaginative, greedy, power-obsessed and destructive, among other things, while women are the exact opposite of all the above, due to their traditional role of bearing and raising children. The Alliance doesn’t just celebrate motherhood--it venerates it as the source of most human virtues worth mention.

Most Cherished Ambition


Accordingly, as members also allow, their most cherished, long-term ambition is to turn this quiet little island nation of 240,000 people into the first country in modern times with a feminist party powerful enough to call many, if not most, of the shots. In the argot of Alliance members, they want “revolutionary change.”

Whether they get it or not, they’re off to a colorful start.

It began in 1983 when the Alliance first surfaced, only weeks before the general election, and still managed to win three seats in the Althing (Parliament) in a minor 11th-hour upset.

In elections this year, it doubled its popularity, winning 10% of the vote and six seats in the 63-member Parliament--enough in a country fractured by five other competing parties to make the women a pivotal force in the formation of a new coalition government.


It was a feminist coup without precedent, and the ensuing spectacle attracted global attention. From April to July, the males of the Icelandic political Establishment courted the women with everything but flowers, wooing them with promises of more day-care centers, incremental hikes in various social programs, possibly even the creation of a special new Ministry of Family Affairs, which would of course be exclusively theirs to run.

Feminists everywhere shivered in anticipation, waiting to see what prizes their sisters would eventually extract.

Then came time for the women to sit down at the negotiating table to play hardball with the men, and guess what? They demanded the one thing the men refused to give--a national minimum wage law which would have also hiked average monthly salaries by about $200, primarily to the benefit of women.

For days the men wheedled and cajoled and tried to convince the ladies that this would lead to unspeakable inflation. For days the women refused to even discuss lesser offers.

The men accused the women of being stubborn and unrealistic. The women accused the men of callous insensitivity to the fact that about 80% of all Icelandic women work outside the home, most from necessity, but are still paid around 56% less than men.

The men leaked word to the local press that the women wanted a huge tax increase but otherwise had no idea how to finance their grand plan. The seething women retorted that this was no more than a cheap smear tactic designed to make them look stupid if they didn’t capitulate, when in fact they had plenty of revenue-raising ideas--starting with elimination of many of the costly perks male legislators had been awarding themselves for years, from frivolous junkets abroad to high-priced fees for sitting on government committees they should be serving for free.

Three Parties Join

It went on this way for hours on end, day after day--until the women finally walked out, leaving the men to form an alliance among themselves. Eventually, three parties with little in common beyond mutual self-interest did.


This was not, of course, the scenario most observers had envisioned. Even Women’s Alliance critics were amazed at the women’s refusal to grab a role in government while they could get it. Some Alliance supporters were so disappointed they declared that, for all their aggressive rhetoric, the women were no more than closet pussycats afraid of real power. Others only hoped they knew what the devil they were doing.

And so it was, on a recent morning, that, as the new government of Iceland was being officially installed in ceremonies not far away, eight members of the Women’s Alliance, including five of their six newly elected lawmakers, were sitting around a long conference table in their office across from Parliament with nothing much to do except drink coffee and pose for a few newspaper photographs.

They were a sensible-looking group, casually dressed, with no-nonsense hairdos and clean faces, not a single smear of even lipstick among them. The members of Parliament ranged in age from 34-60--two teachers, a theater director, a part-time journalist and a farmer’s widow turned cook. The sixth, a physician, was in London. Only one is single with no children, the others have up to seven each.

One trimmed her nails with a big no-nonsense clipper that sent the shavings flying. Another absently snacked on raw sugar cubes. A third kept leaving the room for a cigarette. Then they turned to the business at hand, such as it was: “We are here today to prepare our demands,” explained Kristin Halldorsdottir, 48, one of the Alliance’s two second-term legislators, whose husband is publisher of Iceland’s second-largest newspaper. “For example, we must now have four new offices,” she said with a sardonic smile. “And also I am intending to demand a larger one.”

Malmfridur Sigurdarsdottir, 60, the widow, and one of the Alliance’s two new lawmakers from rural Iceland, representing a district of farmers and fishermen near the Arctic Circle, had an additional item of business. Since she doesn’t speak English as well as the rest, and then only with the help of her little pocket dictionary, she first consulted the group in a rapid-fire singsong burst of Icelandic. It took only seconds. Then, she translated.

“I have heard of a woman, in the northland, she is losing her farm, so I want very much to learn if we can some way help her. But,” she sighed, “we believe that right now we have not--how do you say?--the right strings to pull.”

The secretary took notes, the smoker went outside for another cigarette, and somebody suggested they break early for lunch. Alliance members of Parliament hold these meetings almost every day. Usually, they say, there’s more on the agenda, when Parliament is in session.

But if you think the women of the Alliance are idle, frustrated or given to even faint spells of self-doubt, forget it. A friendlier, more unaffected, self-assured crowd of women would be hard to find. All that even remotely sobers their exuberant mood these days is their new-found sense of global responsibility, and they’re still admittedly a little bewildered by all the sudden attention. As a nation, Iceland has been strongly feminist throughout most of its 1,000-year history--in 1980 even giving the world its first democratically elected female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir. And, certainly an all-women’s political ticket is nothing new here: Icelandic feminists put their first one together back in 1908, electing four women to the Reykjavik City Council.


As Alliance members see it, they’re right on schedule, maybe even running a little ahead. They’re the first to describe themselves as the most important political force in Iceland today, a grassroots movement whose ranks are steadily swelling (now about l,000 members), whose unique organizational structure is the closest thing to pure democracy in Iceland, and whose very presence has already benefited women. The Alliance takes credit, for instance, for forcing other parties to advance more women candidates in the last election (7 won).

As for the coalition issue, they seem surprised at all the fuss. If anything, they’re firmly convinced they only earned added public respect by refusing to compromise their principles merely to accommodate a bunch of men.

So, by way of explanation, they usually just shrug it off, with remarks like these:

“Perhaps we were stubborn. But compromise is the way of men, and we will not be like them.” (Member of Parliament Kristine Einarsdottir, 38, biology professor at the University of Iceland); “We are only six, so even if we had joined the government, what could we do? The men would have been very bossy.” (Halldorsdottir); “We were not willing to be just flowers, ornaments for the men, or to join the coalition only to give ourselves an, uh, elegant face.” (Sigurdarsdottir, consulting her dictionary on ornaments ).

And, driving closer to specifics, from Thorhildur Thorleifsdottir, 42, a noted theater director, mother of five, and, compared to the other, relatively mild-mannered lawmakers, house firebrand, this:

“So what if we could have won perhaps a ministry, more money for day care?” she demands. “The wage issue is the single, most vital thing to the women of Iceland since--here as elsewhere in this fine world of ours, ruled by so many wise men--they are always the worst paid. What good is it to win for this woman such nice things as more maternity leave when she cannot afford her child in the first place?

“It will take time, of course,” she finishes, “but women have been oppressed for centuries, what’s a few more years? Sooner or later, we will make the revolution--we will tear down the whole structure that men have built and start over.”

Meantime, Alliance members of Parliament plan to be six of the loudest, most merciless voices the Loyal Opposition has ever seen.

They’re already outraged by a proposed new government sales tax on certain food items (in a country already plagued by 20% inflation, where the cost of living is so high people commonly hold two jobs just to make ends meet.)

“The flat tax, always the flat tax, to hurt those who can least afford it,” bristles Thorleifsdottir. “And when you ask why not a graduated tax on the rich, the men don’t even hear you. But,” she adds, eyes gleaming, “They will. You can be sure of that--our voices will be heard.”

It is one of the Alliance’s proudest claims--and, it believes, a key element of its success--that all its meetings are open and informal, with no leaders, membership rules or regulations, nor even any formal voting mechanism; all policy decisions, members say, are peaceably reached through “discussion and consensus.”

Though local critics say it’s illegal, the Alliance has also announced a scheme similar to that of West Germany’s environmentalist party, the Greens, in which the party’s parliamentary seats rotate among several women for extended periods, the better to “share power with ordinary people and to prove that any housewife can learn to govern as well as a man;" and, after six years, the elected member will forfeit her seat permanently, in mid-term, to a designated alternate, who campaigned alongside the candidate before elections.

“We were all determined from the very start that we would not create any leaders, no one woman who thinks that she alone has the truth in her hands,” says Halldorsdottir. “We want always to share the spotlight. The MPs (members of Parliament) are not our leaders, only symbols. Our idea is that any one of us can speak equally well for all of us.”

And that’s not just idealistic rhetoric. As anyone who visits the Alliance’s downtown women’s center quickly learns, these women--so far at least--are practicing what they preach.

Like any political headquarters where people speak of revolution and toss around terms like “Power to the people,” the place is predictably rundown but cozy, furnished with hand-me-down couches splitting at the seams, the walls decorated with feminist cartoons and campaign posters. Coffee perks in the kitchen and only fresh, homebaked cakes are served.

Women come and go in a steady stream all afternoon, most dropping in only briefly--office workers on their breaks, housewives on the way to the market, some with children in tow, and usually a few of the lawmakers. It’s primarily an educated, middle-class crowd.

But the level of sophistication otherwise runs the gamut, from a boutique owner (specializing in Iceland’s famous woolens) who can name the 10 best restaurants in France to the day care teacher who sheepishly admits that--like a good many of her countrymen--she believes in fairies, elves and trolls. (In fact, she says, flushing, “I know many people who have seen fairies. It is said they appear much as human.” She paused to see if she was being mocked, saw that she wasn’t, and added, “Also, it is said that the lady fairies are always seen wearing blue dresses.”)

One exceptionally pretty red-head, a former city councilwoman, had just returned from a week in Rome, compliments of the Italian Communist party. It had apparently been one of the most gloriously sensual experiences of her life. “The wine, the food . . . the men ,” she groaned, rolling her eyes and sagging into a chair. The others only smiled and left her alone until it wore off.

For all their talk about the failings of men, the women of the Alliance are clearly not a group of man-haters. Most of them are either apparently satisfied married women or healthy, practicing heterosexuals. Curiously, in fact, at least from an American’s point of view, there wasn’t a lesbian in sight.

“We have no lesbians here,” one woman declared firmly. “It’s not that we are against them, we would, uh, of course welcome them if they came here. But we have seen how they have, uh, dominated the women’s movements in Europe and the U.S. and caused dissension, and we are determined that they shall never, uh, take charge here.

“And, so far, we’ve succeeded,” said another. “No matter how much they dislike us, none of the men have dared ridicule us as just a bunch of lesbians or bra-burning crazies, because Iceland is a small country, everyone knows us--they know we are mostly married women with children, “

Nevertheless, once they begin explaining why women are essential to save society from the insane, unsafe rule of men, their enthusiasm is l00%.

“Because women bear and raise children, we think in longer terms than men, we have wider perspective. Women think society is to hand over to children,” said Ingibjorg Hafstad, a professor of Russian at the University of Iceland and single mother of one. “But men think in short terms, they are greedy and selfish, they believe society is only for themselves, to use for making money, to pollute, to play war. Even the way they speak--with them, it’s always ‘you fight or this, you win that'--always they must have the competition.”

“Men scoff that women talk in circles, not in a straight line like themselves, but we say, no, we think in spirals, always up and out, broader and broader,” said Gudrun Jonsdottir, who mans the Alliance center full-time. “But their straight little line of thinking goes only one way, rigid, only forward, with no way back, no room for any creative change. Only one narrow destination can ever be the outcome of the man’s way of thinking.”

“Ah, but they can be glorious at times,” the redhead sighed, and shut up again.

“What we are saying to men is ‘You forget what is really near to us--to take really good care of our children, our homes, our parents now getting old, the sick people, education,’ ” said a high school teacher. “These things are second to men. They put too much weight on the big, hard things--building new roads, airports, heavy industry, their hydro-electrical plants, polluting the environment, weapons, things like that.”

“I feel sorry for men,” said legislator Thorleifsdottir, who barely caused a pause in the discussion when she arrived. “I always have this vision of how it must have been in the very beginning--of the woman going into the woods alone, while the man watches, and waits. And then finally she comes back with this little baby in her arms, and he can only wonder, poor fellow, how she did it!” Married herself for more than 20 years to a popular Icelandic actor, she actually sounded sympathetic.

Not only do the women of the Alliance appear thoroughly convinced that their analysis of the sexes is correct, they are also proud of its originality. Nowhere in the world do they find a feminist movement they consider pure or honest enough to admire, much less emulate. Scandinavian women, as well as Americans and Europeans, they say, “only attempt to do things as the men do, but to do it better; whereas we are determined to act on own feelings and experiences, not men’s.”

As for such powerful female leaders as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Alliance has only contempt and pity, finding them classic examples of women who sell their souls to make it in a man’s world.

“These women act in the way men want them to act, and therefore violate themselves,” said Hafstad. “Women must listen to their own voices, they must go their own way or this planet is going to hell! We women must act, we dare not sit back and leave it to the men anymore.”

Showing how all this might translate into better government by women, Sigrund Jonsdottir, the office manager, resorted to a favorite Alliance analogy.

“Men want people to believe that government, especially the economy, is all so big and difficult that no one can understand it but them; even the words they use frighten people away,” she said. “But we believe women are the best finance ministers possible, because society, especially Iceland since it is so small, is just like a home, a large family. And any housewife knows how to budget, first for the essentials, then for luxuries. She knows when she must choose between buying the carpet or the children new clothes. It’s the men who spend money they don’t have and drive up the national debt. Even in housecleaning,” she added, “women don’t forget the corners, men do .”

Member of Parliament Malmfridur Sigurdarsdottir had dropped into the party headquarters half an hour earlier and had been sitting quietly in a corner, drinking coffee and smoking one of her endless chain of Winstons. She never speaks unless spoken to, and always seems flattered at the attention. After her husband died, she left the farm and worked as a cook in a rural sanatorium until her election to Parliament, an honor which still makes her blush and stutter apologies about her humble education and origins. But, as anyone who talks to her for more than five minutes soon discovers, she is probably the best read of all the MPs, able to quote verbatim from Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Betty Freidan alike.

“I am not very clever and I have not the words of, uh, the politician,” she said. “But I am willing to learn, to work very hard. And also I have thought often and very hard about the problems of the northland. The life of the common man is very hard. We need very much to have better harbors and roads.”

But why was she talking about men, when she was just elected on an all female ticket?

She blinked in momentary confusion. Then, eyes shining with amused comprehension: “Ah, yes. Well, I have 60 years now,” she said, consulting her dictionary as usual, determined to use the most precise language possible. “And so I know that it is, uh, not possible to divide the women from the men. Everything that is going to bring a better life to the farmer is also going to bring a better life to the farmer’s wife and the farmer’s daughter.”

A hush had fallen over the room as she spoke. If the others stand aside for no one else, whenever this sharp-eyed, weathered little woman from the country speaks, they stop to listen.

“But I very much like the idea of the woman’s party,” she added, “because I have noticed this for many decades, that, when the men comes to us, the, uh (a quick flip through the dictionary) the atmosphere changes. They (dictionary) dominate, and the women they always sit quiet.”

Ingibjorg Hafstad grinned. “That’s when the boys knew we were serious, the minute they met Malmfridur.”

But the boys are still far from happy about it.

Consider, for instance, Prime Minister Thorsteinn Palsson, 39, leader of Iceland’s largest, conservative Independence Party. He had been in office only two days, and already, the poor man’s expression said, here it was, those damned women, haunting him again.

For the better part of an hour he sat stiffly on the edge of his chair, a small smile frozen on his face: “They are, uh, clever ladies, of course,” he fumbled. “But, well, trying to negotiate with them was, uh, difficult, a rather strange, eh, a very special experience for us.”


He flushed. “They are impossible to deal with. . . . They refused to discuss any other issue (besides the wage law). . . . We tried each day to move on, to other areas of possible agreement, but, for them, there is apparently no other matter of consequence in Iceland.” Palsson swallowed a little snicker of disgust.

“Also, in negotiations, it was very curious, their system--each day they sent different women, always at least one new face from the day before, so we could never achieve any continuity, we never knew who we would be dealing with. It was, uh, quite frustrating.” He gazed with yearning at the clock.

“They are nice ladies,” he commented as the interview ended. “But they are not down to earth, they’re flying in the air. And I don’t think they will last, because I don’t think they are women who are able to, uh, learn.” It was the closest Palsson had come to an unguarded remark, and he looked like he regretted it.

About the only elected official in Iceland who expresses unqualified delight at the emergence of the Women’s Alliance is the President, Vigdis Finnbogadottir--a single mother, divorced with a teen-aged daughter. Although hers is a non-political office, her opinions are vintage Alliance.

“I didn’t become such a feminist until I was elected, and people kept saying to me, ‘Oh, how can you possibly do it all by yourself, with no husband?”’ She laughed lightly, a sweet little tinkling sound. She has a sweet face and a sweet smile, too--in fact, everything about the president of Iceland, formerly director of the Reykjavik Theater Co., suggests sweet, fragile femininity, from her careful makeup to her neatly crossed ankles.

“Also, for the first time in my life, I was suddenly surrounded in my work mostly by men. That’s when I began to learn what a hard-boiled view of the world most men have. And they’re so used to the idea that only they should be in government . . . but now the ladies also want to participate, and the Alliance is showing them that they can learn too--that they have the economy of the home to guide them. . . . All of Iceland can be proud of those girls.”

One female politician who most definitely is not proud of those girls is Gudrun Helgadottir, a third-term MP, and lone female, from the leftist People’s Alliance, generally considered the big loser to the women’s party. A spritely, trenchant woman (also a single mother of two) who writes popular children’s books in her spare time, Helgadottir is widely regarded as one of the most liberal politicians in Iceland.

As such, she admits that on most issues she agrees with the Women’s Alliance. At the same time, she sputters, they have proposed nothing that her own party hasn’t by way of social programs, and, moreover, “I have yet to see where men are any less concerned with those issues.” Furthermore, Helgadottir is convinced that an all-women’s party is actually a step backward for women. “I’m against sexual apartheid, I find it shameful to ask to be elected to the Althing just because you’re a woman. And I think having their own party causes women to think less about politics, not more, because the Alliance says to them, ‘You’re a woman, so stick to women’s issues.’ My God, using that logic, I could start a party on the issue of gardening, and I’m sure I’d get several (seats)!”

Surprisingly, some of those closest to the Alliance aren’t much gentler.

“They’re really not a political party--they’re a religious movement, and like all religions, power doesn’t really matter to them,” said Jonas Kristjansson, who is MP Kristin Halldorsdottir’s husband and publisher of Iceland’s second-largest daily newspaper. (In Iceland, married women traditionally keep their maiden names.)

“They just want to influence people, so it suits their purposes just as well to stand there, like Joan of Arc, and perhaps inspire others to put more women in office. Also, by not entering the government, they remain clean and pure, and that has its uses.” His tone of voice was neither affectionate nor amused, it was cold.

As for the general public, many women who voted for the Alliance seem disappointed by its refusal to join the government--but in no way ready to defect. “I’m still with them, I think they just got confused this time, not being experienced and all. But they’ll learn,” shrugged a friendly, matronly clerk at the Hotel Saga, Iceland’s largest. “And I don’t believe the newspapers for a minute, that they wanted to raise taxes on ordinary people. I’ve heard those women speak, and I trust them. They’re trying to help working women.”

And from Jakob Hardarson, 23, a waiter in the same hotel: “What gripes me the most is, I think it’s sexist as hell. What if we started a bloody party just for men? They’d go nuts! They’d scream discrimination. How’s this any different?”

And, finally, a word from Miss World, l986. She comes from Iceland, too.

Her name is Holmfridur Karlsdottir, she is 23, tall, blonde and beautiful, a newlywed who came home at the end of her reign to become a day care teacher.

“I’m not really into politics. . . . But I guess they have a right to their own party if they want one--even if they don’t like beauty contests,” she smiled shyly. And day care teachers are certainly underpaid, but. . . . " She paused, glancing toward her young husband, a law student, who thinks the Alliance is “stupid.” “But sometimes it just seems to me that they want the men to do every thing.” She didn’t explain, only laughed prettily.

Young Jacob, meantime, wearing a foolish grin, almost dropped his tray in her lap as he served her hot chocolate.