Canadian-born first lady of Iceland explores path to gender equality in Nordic nation
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/03/2022 (189 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In Iceland, the word “sprakkar” means extraordinary women.
It’s not a commonly used term — yet. That could change Eliza Reid has anything to do with it.
In her book Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, published in English in February by Simon & Schuster, the 45-year-old Reid weaves together the stories of Icelandic women in all walks of life to show how the country has excelled in some areas of gender equality — and the work that remains to be done in others.
Reid launches Secrets of the Sprakkar virtually on Sunday, March 20 at 2 p.m. in an event hosted by author Terry Fallis and presented in association with McNally Robinson Booksellers.
If “Reid” doesn’t sound much like an Icelandic surname, you’re not wrong. The 45 year old grew up outside Ottawa before heading to the U.K. for school, where she met Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who she would eventually marry in 2004 — and who became president of Iceland in 2016.
Secrets of the Sprakkar is Reid’s first book — one which, as first lady and organizer of the Iceland Writers Retreat, she admits she wouldn’t have had time to write were it not for COVID-19. “It was the pandemic that facilitated my being able to do this; the other activities in which I normally occupy my time changed and were diminished,” she says by video call from London, where she had just launched her book (and, prior to chatting with the Free Press, had just spoken with the first lady of Poland about the situation in Ukraine). “I was able to research and conduct the interviews during the pandemic, according to all pandemic regulations.”
Among the 40 or so interviewees Reid talked to for Secrets of the Sprakkar were Icelandic women in media, the corporate world, art and more, including a boat captain/fisher, a search-and-rescue team member, a comedian and a midwife, the latter of which she got to know through having four children of her own.
“It was so interesting to be able to meet so many different women from around the country,” Reid says. “There is a strong memoir dimension to this book. And so I deliberately tried to choose some women with whom I already had a connection. But the other women were also so generous with their time and with sharing their stories. I really tried to approach all of them with a fairly open mind.”
Reid’s goal with the book was to paint a clearer picture as to why Iceland constantly ranks among the most gender-equal nations per capita in a wide range of measurements — from parental leave to gender balance in the workplace to LGBTTQ* rights and beyond. “When it comes to Iceland and gender equality, we are doing very well, although we’re not perfect,” says Reid. “I tried to make sure to highlight the areas where we know that we need to be doing better and that we need to focus on — this isn’t something we that we should be complacent about.”
She found Iceland has been effective in adopting a two-pronged approach to gender equality. “It is introducing top-down legislation like quota legislation, and it is bottom up, grassroots action,” she explains. “And it’s people following their dreams and being role models and elevating each other’s voices. I hope that the book inspires individuals of all genders to leave no one behind and to speak up when they see inequality.”
And while not all those Reid interviewed had or have been active in working towards gender equality in Iceland, all have felt the impact of the work that has been done. “Certainly not all of them would define themselves as feminist, for whatever reason, and certainly they wouldn’t necessarily all consider themselves part of the battle,” she says. “But they’re all people who see absolutely that is their right to live as equal beings, and not to be hindered in any way by their gender.”
In combining memoir with an exploration of gender equality in Iceland, Reid was always conscious of Iceland’s rich literary tradition. “Iceland is a storytelling nation… I wanted I wanted to tell stories, rather than just do interviews, as a sort of homage to that storytelling tradition in Iceland.” She notes the gender equality in the country carries over into Iceland’s literary landscape as well. “It’s maybe the area that is the most gender equal — books by women and men actually sell equally, which isn’t the case in all countries by any stretch,” she says. “Men and women purchase books equally here, and they purchase them, broadly speaking, by male and female authors equally.”
The first place Secrets of the Sprakkar was published was in Iceland (and in Icelandic) last fall in order for it to be released in time for jolabokaflod, an annual tradition of exchanging books as gifts in the country that precedes Christmas. “It was very exciting, and an honour for me… I was most nervous about the reaction in Iceland, because the people who were being interviewed were going to be reading it,” she says. “The feedback has been very positive, which makes me happy. The women I interviewed, I have a deep respect for them all, and I’m grateful to all of them. I wanted to make sure that they felt like their stories had been captured.”
After two years of turmoil, Reid is excited about the return of the Iceland Writers Retreat, which has been held since 2014, but was cancelled in 2020 and held virtually in 2021. “We’re full steam ahead for an in-person event. We’re also introducing the very first Iceland Readers Retreat, which is for avid readers,” she says. “We have readings, question and answer sessions with authors. We have more literary themed tours led by authors. And then we also have a chance for people to see the Icelandic saga manuscripts and to listen to a panel of Icelandic authors. Instead of focusing on attending writing workshops, people have more interaction with authors in another sense.”
Looking at Canada, her country of birth, Reid sees progress in some areas and others in which there is still much to be done, switching her conversational “we” from Icelandic to Canadian. “One area where we might be wanting to work more is, for instance, the discourse we see online and in social media — and, to a lesser extent, the way the official press operates,” she says. “The vitriol we see on social media is incredibly vicious and much of it is misogynist… it’s a big impediment, for instance, to encouraging more women to run for office.”
Reid hopes readers feel inspired by the stories in Secrets of the Sprakkar of Iceland’s women and the ongoing work towards true gender equality. “I hope people feel like it’s a sort of warm and friendly book, more conversational, where you get to meet interesting people and learn about an interesting country under the theme of gender equality,” she says.
And while Reid admits to having caught the book-writing bug, she’s aware her duties as first lady and with the Iceland Writers Retreat will beckon more the world returns to some sense of normalcy — although the many hats Reid wears are anything but normal. “It’s a surreal, but charmed life. And I’m very grateful.”
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.