First Lady Of Iceland Eliza Reid Advocates For Gender Equality
By Cheryl Robinson
Around the world, gender equality is a trending topic. Although women and girls make up half the population, the ongoing battle for women’s rights has continued for centuries. In 1945, the United Nations Charter made equality between men and women a fundamental principle to help advance gender equality. Since the creation of the Charter, 131 countries have added 274 gender-related reforms to laws and regulations. However, it’s estimated that more than 2.5 billion women and girls live in countries with at least one discriminatory law on the books.
Some countries are making leaps and bounds in closing the gender inequality gap. Astoundingly, the United States doesn’t even rank on the World Economic Forum’s top 10 countries for women’s rights and opportunities. Yet, for 12 years in a row, Iceland has been named the world’s best country for gender equality.
Eliza Jean Reid, the First Lady of Iceland and cofounder of the annual Iceland Writers Retreat, serves as a role model and prominent voice in the fight for gender equality.
“When I first had this opportunity, I felt a big constraint, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t talk here because I don’t know if I’m allowed to, or can I go do this by myself?’” Reid expresses. “‘Can I talk about gender equality because I have a platform because of something my husband achieved?’ I mean, the irony of that is crazy. But then I just thought, ‘In life, we are given all kinds of opportunities. We can either do something with it, or we can’t. As long as we achieve these opportunities through legitimate or non-limited various means, we should decide to make the most of them.”
Originally from Canada, Reid moved to Iceland in 2003, where she worked as a freelance writer for multiple Icelandic publications and worked in sales and marketing before becoming an editor of Icelandair Stopover. In 2014, she and her friend, Erica Jacobs Green, cofounded the Iceland Writers Retreat, an annual event that combines small-group writing workshops with cultural tours to introduce visitors to Iceland’s unique literary heritage. In this capacity, she has been active in helping to promote Icelandic writers and literary heritage abroad, especially in North America.
Reid met her husband, Gudni Th. Johannesson, while in college. Before moving to the Nordic country, the First Lady actually proposed to Johannesson. They are committed to supporting each other in life’s quests and ventures. Prior to the election, he worked as a professor and a commentator on political affairs in the Icelandic media. People began to associate him in the political sector and encouraged him to run for office. Then in 2016, Johannesson became the President of Iceland.
In her new role, Reid made it clear that she didn’t want to be viewed as a voiceless woman on her husband’s arm. She speaks at events, brings awareness to global concerns such as climate change, advocates gender equality and for women and girls to raise their voices.
One day during the pandemic, the First Lady was out for a walk. She thought about all of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s, former Icelandic president and the world’s first woman who was democratically elected as president, accomplishments, and how Iceland has ranked number one 12 consecutive years on the World Economic Forum’s gender equality list. Then, she wondered why no one had written a book about it yet. Reid’s book, Secrets of the Sprakkar, which looks at Iceland’s success with gender equality, is scheduled to hit shelves this February.
“The idea was a little different,” she states. “I’m pulling things that I think are particularly special or unique. And I can help use the story of the Sprakkar women, these outstanding women who are regular women like you and me, to illustrate what it is like. I wanted to be very accessible to hear the diversity of voices and stories, but not of people who have accomplished superhuman things, just regular people who are living their lives.”
Although Iceland still isn’t at the 50/50 mark, it does have legislation policies that are helping close the gap. For instance, larger companies are required to prove that men and women have equal salaries for equal job responsibilities. Additionally, there needs to be a close to gender balance of the boards of publicly traded companies. Also, the country has a generous maternity and paternity leave policy to support parents and families.
As Reid continues to navigate her role as First Lady and pivot in her career, she focuses on the following essential steps:
- Commit to your decision. There are going to be many challenges along the way. Don’t let them deter you. Focus on why you started.
- Connect with people who have done it before you. They are a wealth of knowledge.
- Go for it. In life, you’re most likely going to regret the chances you didn’t take than the ones you did. You have to have peace with your decisions.
“I never grew up thinking that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do, but as an adult, I realized that that isn’t the case for everybody,” Reid concludes. “Being First Lady, in some senses, being known as the wife of somebody, is a very strange thing because I had forged my own identity here in the country. All of a sudden, I was better known because of who I was married to rather than who I was as an individual. And I found that strange and intimidating at first. But then after that, I thought that that just provided an opportunity for me to be able to shape and mold this role, for lack of a better word, into what I wanted it to be.”