The World’s First Elected Female President Reflects On Breaking Barriers, Women’s Rights

By Stephanie Fillion

Even at 92, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who became the first elected female president of a country in 1980, is still a consummate politician and continues to speak out for women’s rights.

Finnbogadottir made a recent appearance at the Reykjavik Global Forum, where her attendance was celebrated by the country’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir and other high-level women in politics. The former president, in an interview, discussed women in leadership, women’s rights, and the situation in Afghanistan.

Breaking Barriers

When Finnbogadottir was elected in her country’s top job, she did not only become the world’s first elected woman president, but she went on to being the world’s longest-serving one as well. She was the country’s president for 16 years, between 1980 and 1996, and many Icelandic women and girls grew up with her as a role model, encouraging others to be involved in the country’s political life.

‘’I was 8 years old when she was elected,’’ Helga Vala Helgadottir, an Icelandic politician and a member of the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, said. “She and other women made us proud and strong and we were raised with that view that women could do everything as equally as men.”

Finnbogadottir divorced and also a single mother when she became president, and faced a lot of pushback at the time, which she often responded to with some wit. Finnbogadottir is also a survivor of breast cancer and after she was asked her how she was planning on leading the nation with just one breast, she famously replied: “It was never the intention to breastfeed the nation.”

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Iceland’s current prime minister also talked about how she shaped her own political career, reminding the crowd at the Forum of one of Finnbogadottir’s iconic statements: “the world is tough, I am tougher.”

One situation Finnbogadottir denounced when it comes to women’s rights is the one of in Afghanistan. Last March, the Taliban de facto authority decided to ban girls education beyond sixth grade. The decision was, for the politician, made out of fear. “That shows very clearly the insecurity of men who do not want to liberate the women because they’re afraid.” She added that Afghan women should know that “the world is ambitious for them” but believes change in the country has to come from inside.

Leading the Way

Iceland is currently the world’s most gender equal country. While it does not have a fully gender-balanced parliament, it outperforms other countries on many other fronts like equal pay and participation in the workplace. Since she left office, no other woman was elected president, but the country elected two female prime ministers, including the current one, Katrin Jakobsdottir.

“I don’t say that we have to put us on the map because it’s there already,” Finnbogadottir added, “but I’m very proud of my country to take a position of equality.”

According to the Global Forum’s latest index, the measure of perceived suitability of women and men for leadership have dropped to levels lower than were first measured when the Index was launched in 2018 in G7 countries.

The index also indicated that Iceland has the highest perceived suitability of women in leadership with a rate of 91%. According to the World Economic Forum, Finnbogadottir’s long and early presence as a political figure contributed to closing the gender gap in the country.

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“I was representing both men and women,” she said. “Men sometimes forget they are half women. Half of the genes come from women.”

Many countries around the world still have yet to elect a woman in the top job — including in France and the United States — but the world’s first elected president believes women need to keep pushing.“Believe that you’re doing the right thing,” Finnbogadottir said. “Please believe that you’re not inferior to men, because it’s always in the head — It’s not the body, it’s the head and the thoughts.”



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