Women’s Day Off
On 24 October 1975, instead of going to the office, doing housework or childcare women took to the streets in thousands to rally for equal rights with men.
Flyers fluttered against clear autumn skies: “We march because it is commonly said about a housewife: ‘She is not working, she is just keeping house’,” they read. “We march because the work experience of a housewife is not considered of any value in the labour market.”
For Icelandic men, this day became known as the “Long Friday”. With no women to staff desks and tills, banks, factories and many shops were forced to close, as were schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring crayons to entertain the swarms of children in their workplaces, or bribing older children to look after their siblings. Sausages were in such demand that shops sold out; children could be heard giggling in the background while male newsreaders reported the day’s events on the radio.
The day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland. It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.
The idea of a strike was first proposed by the Red Stockings, a radical women’s movement founded in 1970, but to some Icelandic women it felt too confrontational. It was only after the strike was renamed “Women’s Day Off” that it secured near-universal support, including solid backing from the unions.
What Led To Women’s Day Off?
In 1915, women in Iceland got the right to vote, behind New Zealand and Finland. The next 60 years saw only nine women took seats in parliament. In 1975 there were just three sitting female MPs, or just 5% of the parliament, compared with between 16% and 23% in the other Nordic countries, and this was a major source of frustration.
How Did Men Respond?
For most men the day marked as a stark realisation of women’s value in households and at office spaces. The next day started with the knowledge that women are as well as men the pillars of society. Companies and institutions realised the force and necessity of women – it completely changed the way of thinking.
Interestingly when the husband of one of the main speakers was reportedly asked by a co-worker, “Why do you let your woman howl like that in public places? I would never let my woman do such things.” The husband shot back: “She is not the sort of woman who would ever marry a man like you.”
What Happened After 1975?
Iceland’s watershed moment changed the contours of the country for better. On November 1980, five years after the historic women’s rally, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, won Iceland’s presidency by defeating three male candidates. She was Europe’s first female president, and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. Vigdis became so popular that she was re-elected unopposed in two of the three next elections.
Forty-five years later, Iceland has ranked top in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report– an index that examines educational opportunities, life expectancy, pay equity and the average time spent on housework – in 13 of the past 16 years.
Today, Iceland is proudly known as “the world’s most feminist country” only because they decided to unite.