Women in History Wednesdays: Kvennafrídagurinn

By Rocco Graziano

What would our world be like without women? On October 24, 1975, the women of Iceland answered that question with resounding power. Over 90% of Iceland’s women took to the streets, abandoning their jobs, and avoiding any housework or child-rearing. They sought to show that Iceland and, by extension, the world, could not function without the help of women.

The origins of this strike, know in Icelandic as Kvennafrídagurinn, or the Women’s Day Off, can be identified in the socio-economic situation in which Icelandic women found themselves in 1975. In their own words, these women sought to “demonstrate the indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society” and to “protest wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices.” Even the name of the strike, the “Women’s Day Off” was a reflection of these unfair business practices, as women could be fired for striking, and thus it had to be presented as a “day off”, which employers could not deny to their employees. At the start of the year, the United Nations declared 1975 the “International Year of Women”, yet it was hard not to see the hypocrisy in this declaration. At the time, Icelandic women received only 60 cents for each dollar that a man earned. In addition, women were discouraged from holding careers or time-consuming jobs, as they were expected to care for the home and the children.

The strike, it turned out, was the perfect way to demonstrate the costs of taking for granted women’s roles in society. The effects of the strike reverberated all across Iceland, effectively shutting down the operational capacity of much of the country. The telephone service, as well as the newspapers, were forced to close completely for the day, as most of the workers were women. Even schools had to shut their downs due to lack of teaching staff, which was almost entirely female. Flights were cancelled without flight attendants, fish factories were closed without the labor which women provided, and bank executives had to serve as tellers in order to keep their banks open. The women of Iceland showed the world on this day that our economic landscape, even though deeply rooted in a patriarchal-capitalist substructure, could not survive without women to help it along. In terms of employment, women were often seen by Icelandic men as unimportant to the workforce. That sexist vision was shattered by female solidarity.

Yet, this was not only a movement for equal employment opportunities and equal pay. This was a fight for recognition of the work which women do as a whole for a thankless society. They were demanding to be seen as equal players in Icelandic society—not as a lesser extension of the men to whom they were connected. The movement extended beyond striking from one’s paid job, but also from the jobs of child-rearing and housework. This “day-off” from parenting highlighted the double standard between mothers and fathers and the division of family work. Icelandic stores sold out of sausage across the country, as husbands raced to feed their children (one of the only foods men were expected to know how to cook) without the help of their wives. Employers who remained open provided husbands who had to bring their children to work, as schools and daycares were closed, with pencils, paper, crayons, and snacks.  It should be noted that such allowances were not usually made for women who were forced to bring their children to work due to certain circumstances.

The Kvennafridagurinn represented a watershed moment in Icelandic history. In the next election following the strike, Iceland would elect the world’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. This “Women’s Day Off” showed Iceland—and the world—that women have an integral place in our society for which they must be recognized and treated equally and fairly.