Secrets of the sprakkar Iceland's extraordinary women and how they are changing the world

Eliza Reid

Book - 2022

"Iceland is the best place on earth to be a woman-but why? For the past twelve years, the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report has ranked Iceland number one on its list of countries closing the gap in equality between men and women. What is it about Iceland that makes many women's experience there so positive? Why has their society made such meaningful progress in this ongoing battle, from electing the world's first female president to passing legislation specifically designed to help even the playing field at work and at home? And how can we learn from what Icelanders have already discovered about women's powerful place in society and how increased fairness benefits everyone? Eliza Reid, the First Lady o...f Iceland, examines her adopted homeland's attitude toward women-the deep-seated cultural sense of fairness, the influence of current and historical role models, and, crucially, the areas where Iceland still has room for improvement. Reid's own experience as an immigrant from small-town Canada who never expected to become a first lady is expertly interwoven with interviews with dozens of sprakkar ("extraordinary women") to form the backbone of an illuminating discussion of what it means to move through the world as a woman, and how the rules of society play more of a role in who we view as "equal" than we may understand. Secrets of the Sprakkar is a powerful and atmospheric portrait of a tiny country that could lead the way forward for us all"--

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2nd Floor 305.4094912/Reid Checked In
Naperville, Illinois : Sourcebooks [2022]
Main Author
Eliza Reid (author)
Physical Description
x, 277 pages : map ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Author's Note
  • Chapter 1. An Immigrant in Iceland
  • Chapter 2. Helping Parents Helps Us All
  • The Saga-Era Sprakki Who Defied Convention
  • Chapter 3. The Strength in Sisterhood
  • Chapter 4. Stigma-Free Sexuality
  • The No-Holds-Barred Sprakki of the Middle Ages
  • Chapter 5. Claiming the Corporate Purse Strings
  • Chapter 6. Being Seen and Heard in the Media
  • The Undaunted Sprakki Who Fought for Nature
  • Chapter 7. Finding Harmony in the Wild
  • Chapter 8. Art as an Instrument of Equality
  • The Sprakkar Who Rallied a Nation
  • Chapter 9. No Woman Is an Island
  • The Sprakki Who Shattered the Glass Ceiling
  • Chapter 10. Politics on Her Own Terms
  • Chapter 11. Within Reach
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix 1. List of Interviews
  • Appendix 2. Further Reading
  • Reading Group Guide
  • Endnotes
  • Index
  • About the Author
Review by Choice Review

This book makes a commendable attempt at exploring gender equality in Iceland. The author presents Iceland's successes and challenges, speaking both as an outsider and as the country's "first lady." This reader found the topic and the voices of the various women interviewed for the book compelling, interesting, and refreshing. Reid's presentation of the challenges and achievements with respect to gender equality in one of the most "equal" countries in the world is thought-provoking and makes an important contribution to the general discussion. On the other hand, the text seems rushed and suffers, at times, from the author's tendency to allow her own voice and anecdotes to overwhelm others' voices and the topic itself. The book is an important first step but falls short of its author's intention of offering an important, compelling work as a "testament to the type of society we can build when we are vigilant about creating and ensuring equal opportunities, experiences, and rewards for people of all genders" (p. 2). However, this is a good introduction to gender equality, Iceland, and Eliza Reid as a person and is suitable for interested, nonacademic readers. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers. --Andrew Evan Leykam, College of Staten Island (CUNY)

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Booklist Review

According to an Icelandic idiom, "A guest's eyes see more clearly." Reid, born in Canada and married to the president of Iceland, is uniquely placed to observe the country which leads the world in gender equality, providing generous parenting leave, abundant childcare, and free prenatal services. Reid, who has four children and works as a freelance journalist in addition to her First Lady duties, celebrates the government policies that make all this family support possible. As she interviews women making a difference in her country, she speaks frankly about her own struggles with parenting and living a life of purpose in her husband's shadow. Intercut within her chapters are profiles of sprakkar, an ancient Icelandic word for extraordinary or outstanding women. The portraits range from warrior women in the tenth century to modern women who rallied the nation and shattered glass ceilings. Reid doesn't claim that Iceland is paradise. There is still work to be done for women of color, immigrants, and women with diverse sexual preferences. But the tiny country of Iceland should serve as an inspiration to the rest of the world.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Reid, a Canadian who is married to the president of Iceland, combines memoir, feminist history, and travelogue in this immersive look at what makes her adopted home "the planet's finest country for women." Sprakkar, in the title, refers to an ancient Icelandic term for "extraordinary or outstanding women," among them former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the "world's first democratically elected female head of state" in 1980, and Jamaican immigrant Claudia Ashanie Wilson, who in 2016 became the first foreign-born woman to pass the bar exam and qualify as a practicing attorney in Iceland. Reid also recalls meeting her future husband, historian Gudni Jóhannesson, while studying at Oxford in 1998, and recounts his meteoric rise to the presidency after the 2016 "Panama Papers" scandal implicated the country's prime minister and cabinet members. Throughout, Reid reflects on Iceland's history, generous parental leave policy, and strengths as a nation of less than 370,000 people ("change is easier to demand, to implement, and to measure"), while offering an intimate look at her career and life as a mother of four. Laced with frank discussions of domestic abuse, intersectionality, and other complex issues, this is a winning portrait of a country at the forefront of the fight for gender equality. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Literary. (Feb.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Chapter 1: An Immigrant in Iceland 1 AN IMMIGRANT IN ICELAND A guest's eyes see more clearly I IN ICELAND, IT'S CONSIDERED BAD luck to start a new job on a Monday. A Friday is acceptable, the first day of the calendar month (if it does not fall on a Monday, of course) even better, but if you really want to make a success of your career, avoid starting on a Monday. My working life on this North Atlantic island therefore began on a Tuesday in October, one that was cloudy with a stiff breeze, as so many October days here are. Having been a resident of Iceland for not quite six weeks, I was unaware of the Monday rule. I was keen to start my new job, but when the CEO of the small software start-up where I had been hired as a marketing specialist gave me the starting date, I felt in no position to suggest an alternative. After all, I was lucky. I had landed a job that related to my previous experience in a country where I did not speak the language and knew practically no one aside from my fiancé and his family. I moved to Iceland for love in 2003 when I was twenty-seven years old. Before I met my future husband, Gudni Jóhannesson, in the autumn of 1998, my entire knowledge of the country consisted of being able to recognize its flag and its location on the map and identify its capital city as Reykjavík (thanks to hours playing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? on a Commodore 64 in the 1980s). I did not know that, even then, Iceland was considered one of the best places in the world to be a woman. That a unique alchemy of history, people, policies, and luck have produced a country that is arguably closer than any other to clutching the golden ring of gender equality. Gudni and I met in graduate school at Oxford University in England, two foreigners among many at one of Oxford's colleges, St. Antony's, that specialized in international studies. Gudni was the first Icelander to attend St. Antony's and one of only a handful who were studying at the entire university. To me, a twenty-two-year-old Canadian woman who grew up on a hobby farm in the Ottawa Valley, his obscure nationality was alluring. He was quiet, owned many books and few other possessions, and didn't drink as enthusiastically as the other students (I assumed that was what all Icelanders were like). He was also tall and easygoing, and he sparingly but devastatingly deployed a bone-dry, self-deprecating humor to match that of the British. I had moved across the ocean to England just a couple of months after completing my bachelor of arts degree in Canada, using the excuse of graduate school to experience a new country, get further into debt, and postpone making any decisions about what I actually wanted to do with my life. My cohort fell broadly into two groups. On one hand, there were those who, like me, had been in school all our lives, were hardworking enough to have been accepted at one of the world's most prestigious institutions, but prioritized our time in an arguably less constructive way (I never missed a pub or poker night and didn't bother to hear then Czech president Václav Havel deliver a sought-after keynote talk because I knew I would not be tested on it). On the other hand, some students had more maturity. Many had sacrificed much to be at Oxford, quitting jobs, painstakingly saving money, upending families. They were there to get the most they could out of the experience. Gudni, of course, not only attended the talk of the aforementioned Cold War dissident but also volunteered as an usher at the event. He read the index of every book first, no matter the topic, in case there was an entry for Iceland. He clipped out articles in the newspaper on topics as diverse as historiography and sporting heroes and filed them meticulously by subject in a series of binders, on the chance that sometime in the distant future, he could use them in an article or speech (a more prescient activity than the future president knew at the time). From this behavior and the smattering of gray hairs around his temples, I suspected he was marginally older than I, perhaps as wizened as twenty-six. Once, at midnight during a house party in a smoke-filled, cramped basement flat, when I was trying to get to know this intriguing but quiet man a little better, he casually mentioned being an undergraduate student when the Berlin Wall fell. I was in Grade Eight in 1989. "How old are you?" I asked when I realized that my estimate of his age might be overly optimistic. "I am thirrrty," he said and smiled, rolling the r just a moment too long, as one would do if speaking Icelandic. This can't be possible , I remember thinking. It was midnight. Two revelers who quite likely did not know each other's names were making out in the corner. Cigarette smoke was thick in the air. No one as old as "thirrrty" would ever want to stay out that late in this environment, surely. I nodded, sipped my beer, and changed the subject. "What are you up to over the holidays?" It was only mid-November, but people were already booking flights home for when term ended. "I'll be visiting my daughter," he replied nonchalantly, as if it was so obvious that I needn't have asked. I nearly spit out my beer. Of course you are . If the world is suddenly so topsy-turvy that I am flirting at midnight with a man who has just entered his fourth decade, then it would be perfectly natural that he also has a child and a handsome, r -rolling, Nordic family back in Iceland whom he has never mentioned in the two months I've known him. This rather put a spanner (I was in the UK now, so it was not a wrench) in the works for my flirtation with the Viking. Game off , I thought, as if this conversation were a weekend road hockey pickup game and his personal life were a passing car. "Oh, of course. What about her mother?" I ventured. "I'm not visiting her," he replied, maintaining eye contact with me. Game on. Gudni was the first divorcé I counted among my friends. He had not mentioned his four-year-old daughter before because in the gamut of small talk when students first meet, no one thinks to ask about children, and he was not the type to offer up more detail than necessary. In that key developmental decade of one's twenties, he had completed his first master's degree, fathered a child, gotten married then amicably divorced, and finally relocated to England. He was eight years older than I, at that time more than one-third of my life, yet somehow the fact that we were both students put us on a level playing field. And he made me laugh. By the end of the academic year, we were a couple. Eighteen months later, we were living together in a small flat in Hampshire as he completed his PhD in history and I worked in sales and marketing for a rather posh two-hundred-year-old company that had only recently stopped addressing people as Mrs. or Miss instead of by first name (Ms. being, it seemed to me, a title they unofficially reserved for divorcées and lesbians). On weekdays, Gudni often made the two-and-a-half-hour, one-way trip via train and Underground to the Public Record Office (now National Archives) near Kew just outside London to pore over records of British-Icelandic relations. I helped write marketing brochures on how to identify counterfeit pharmaceuticals or luxury goods and corrected people who asked on a virtually daily basis where in the States I was from. In the evenings, I worked on learning a few phrases of Icelandic, a Norse language that has changed little in the eleven hundred or so years since the island was settled. My CD-ROM taught me such helpful phrases as Where is the train station? (there are no trains in Iceland) and Where is the beach? (a small part of the country straddles the Arctic Circle). I had a plan...of sorts. Gudni was finishing up his degree, completing a one-hundred-thousand-word dissertation on twentieth-century fishing disputes in the North Atlantic, and he understandably wanted to return to the island where he was missing so much of his daughter Rut's childhood (although she visited us regularly and he spent most summers with her in Iceland). If we wanted to be together, it would be in Iceland or nowhere, at least while she was still growing up. And if I was going to move there with Gudni, it would be to stay. I'd need to make a life for myself there, outside of being his partner. It could not be a dress rehearsal; I didn't want it to be easy for me to give up on the partnership when I despaired at the 10:00 a.m. darkness in December or if I were unable to understand conversation in Icelandic at dinner parties. If this was going to be the main performance of my life, I thought it was just as well to be married, to be legally committed to each other until death do us part. Therefore, one sunny March weekend, just a couple of months after we had decided we'd soon be leaving the UK and beginning a new adventure together in Iceland, when we escaped our routines to walk along the sea in north Cornwall, I proposed to him, and he accepted. I had smuggled a bottle of champagne into my suitcase, and we drank it in the Fawlty Towers-esque B and B where we were staying before celebrating our engagement with some takeaway fish and chips in a seaside village. On the phone the next day, Gudni's pleased mother said to him, "I hope you did it properly!" He confessed the true circumstances of the betrothal only months later. I figured if I was about to move to this remote island where I did not speak the language and did not have a job, then I might as well be broke too and make a truly fresh start. I cashed in my share options from the company where I'd been working and planned a one-hundred-day solo trip. I'd begin on the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia and Central Asia and end with six weeks backpacking around Southeast Asia. I arrived in Iceland to live on August 19, 2003, almost ten years to the day before my fourth child would be born. While I had been living out of a fifteen-kilogram (about thirty-three-pound) backpack, drinking mango lassies, riding camels, and sleeping under mosquito nets, Gudni had submitted his doctoral thesis and found a small one-bedroom apartment for us to rent in a four-story building near the University of Iceland in central Reykjavík. Rut, who was now nine, stayed with us on a pullout sofa every second weekend. A few days after my move, Gudni noticed an ad in the local paper for a marketing specialist at a company where English was the working language. I got the job, and my first day was that windy Tuesday in October. After only six weeks in the country, I was fortunate to have found a good position that could support us financially while Gudni began a postdoc research role at the university. I also started eight hours a week of intensive Icelandic lessons. I had learned that I could pack away for good my umbrella, that vital accessory of the UK; it was no match for Icelandic wind. I bought a bus pass to ferry me to and from work (generally with other immigrants, senior citizens, middle-school kids, or those who had no driver's license for one reason or another). I marveled at autumn's lingering sunsets over Faxaflói Bay and waking up to see snowfall on Mount Esja, which towered over the city. I was in the midst of the high that constitutes the first blush of culture shock, when everything is new and exhilarating. I had moved for love, yes, but here I was earning an income and learning the language, beginning to create my own raison d'?être for life in Iceland. I could already see there would be moments that called for patience and persistence but that I would like it here. Starts-ups are often male dominated, those in the software industry especially so. When I joined the company that autumn almost two decades ago, I was the fifteenth employee and the fourth woman. The company was founded by former Icelandair employees, and it designed software for airlines. It was the perfect environment in which to undergo the initial steps of the transition from foreigner to Icelander. I progressed from milky tea to strong black coffee, from business suits and heels to khaki pants and cotton tops. With every day growing shorter, my colleagues tolerated my grumbling about the impending winter darkness. As lifetime residents of the world's northernmost capital city, where the latitude causes extreme shifts in daylight hours, from virtually twenty-four-hour light in June to an official sunrise of 11:22 a.m. and sunset of 3:29 p.m. on December 21, they were aware of how much worse it was going to get (both the darkness and the grumbling!). Despite not knowing much of the language yet, I was considered one of the team, welcomed as one of a group of people who were doing something fun, exciting, and new. I was nerdy enough to fit in with the programmers, casual enough to fit in with the guys, and young enough to want to go out for drinks on a Friday night. There was a small kitchen where we could prepare our own lunches and a room with throw pillows and a DVD player where employees could leave their children on a day when school was closed. I would never have seen that at my British workplace. Our CEO was one of the four women at the company. She had a background in banking but here acted as CEO, CFO, and HR director and had a host of other responsibilities, including apprising the company's board of directors about all developments. The board met in our office's single conference room every few months at the tail end of the workday, about five people sipping strong coffee and indulging in local pastries ordered for the occasion. The board's chair was a woman in her late thirties called Halla Tómasdóttir. She had spent several years in the corporate world in the United States, returning to Iceland to work on various opportunities in business and finance and start a family. I first met her as I passed by one of those board meetings. She had just returned from maternity leave with her second child and was chairing the meeting as she nursed the baby. In this testosterone-laden environment, no one batted an eye, no one made a "joke," and at least one male board member later bounced the wee one on his lap while Halla addressed a point on the agenda. Almost two decades later, this snapshot stays with me. I could withstand dark winters, windy weather, and a poor selection of fresh vegetables in the shops if this interaction between a mother and her child was considered a natural, healthy, and completely unremarkable moment of a business meeting. I was still in my twenties, childless, carefree, satisfied and so very fortunate in my life, but I also knew that looming ahead was societal pressure to have a family, to advance in my career, to contribute or at the very least conform to a norm on what middle-class, educated women like me should achieve. But was it possible that I had landed in a country where, with a bit of luck, women could just maybe have it all? At the end of an August day almost a year later--it could well have been a blasted Monday--I was asked into the office of the CEO and told the company had to reduce its budget. And there I was left blindsided, laid off. In the coming months, Halla was one of many people I contacted as I tried to cultivate my self-esteem and find new employment, a challenge that proved much more difficult my second time around in Iceland. We stayed in touch occasionally over the years. I profiled her when I changed career directions and worked as a journalist for Iceland Review magazine and sought her advice when a friend and I launched our own project, the Iceland Writers Retreat. She was always encouraging and helpful. Our paths would continue to cross. When I was memorizing flags and capital cities as a geeky child, I assumed that because the flag of Iceland and those of its Nordic cousins (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) were similar, its population must also be. Likely a few million or maybe up to ten million? In fact, Iceland has one of the smallest populations of any independent nation. On New Year's Day 2021, it was a mere 368,590, 1 small enough that rounding to even the nearest thousand seems to do our society a disservice. In the time that I have lived in this country, the population has grown by more than a quarter. Countries with fewer people than Cleveland, Ohio, or Bristol in the UK are forgiven for possessing a Small Nation Complex. (I grew up in Canada, which, despite its size and population also has SNC due to its proximity to a massively larger neighbor to the south, so I bear a rather natural affection for this affliction.) In Iceland, SNC manifests itself in a healthy interest in the frequency with which the country is mentioned in foreign media or what even the most minor celebrity thinks of his or her experience in visiting the country ("How do you like Iceland?" is the most loaded question any visitor can answer and should be dealt with in the same vein as "Do I look fat in this?"). It's hard to top many global charts if you're small. In fact, Iceland is often left off global rankings simply because the data available are not extensive enough to include. If reaching a seven-figure population is still decades, if not centuries, away, the best (and most frequent) way to show a bit of national pride in a global context is to invoke the per capita statistics. We have a high GDP and extensive investment in the arts and are major contributors to international development--per capita. In 1955, when Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Iceland became the nation with the most Nobel Prize for Literature recipients--per capita. II (If you have never heard of Halldór Laxness, please don't upset a native-born Icelander by admitting that to them.) We cannot wait until we win our first ever Olympic gold medal to leap ahead in that event's per capita stats. Surely, we have the most per capita statistics of any nation--per capita. There are, however, a few areas in which Iceland leads the world in real, unconditional terms. Even better, these are the areas that actually count. I live in one of the happiest nations on earth. Iceland has the hightest rate of acceptance of homosexuality among OECD countries. It is the world's most peaceful country, helped no doubt by the fact that it has no military. With these and other broad standard of living indices, we Icelanders remain in perpetual and friendly competition with the other Nordic countries. For example, all five nations appear in the top ten list for happiness (the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada are not in that upper tier, though they are all in the top twenty). Although each of the five Nordic countries has a distinct culture, history, and language, we share enough common values and connections that we often stick together on the international stage. III Iceland in particular often creates its own legislation based on preexisting laws in other Nordic states or the European Union. Once we're talking sports, though, all bets are off. There are few things more thrilling for an Icelander than watching one of our national teams defeat Denmark (which ruled Iceland from the fourteenth century until 1944 2 ) in a competition. Perhaps what has garnered this island the most proverbial column inches as far as quality of life is concerned, however, is the state of gender equality. One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, that of gender equality and women's empowerment, aims to end discrimination, eliminate gender-based violence and harmful practices, and ensure women's participation in the workforce and access to health and reproductive care. Study after study, time after time, proves that the more gender-equal a society is, the happier, longer living, and more economically prosperous it is for all its citizens. 3 And according to the World Economic Forum at least, for the past dozen years in a row, Iceland has taken home the trophy for the nation closest to achieving this ideal. 4 The index ranks countries on how well they have succeeded in closing the gender gap in the areas of employment, education, health, and politics. The other Nordic countries are nipping at our heels or are ahead by some measures. 5 But simply put, when judged by these matrices, Iceland is the planet's finest country for women, and so, if any country is finally to achieve gender equality, Iceland has an excellent head start. As a society, in Iceland, we have passed the tipping point of whether gender equality is important or valuable and have progressed to debate how to achieve it. Accordingly, Iceland has the highest level of female participation in the workforce. There is little to no social stigma regarding single parents or young mothers. There is a female chief of police and bishop of the national church. Famously, in 1980, the country voted in the world's first democratically elected female head of state and had the world's first openly lesbian head of government in 2009. For several years, the Icelandic chapter of UN Women has made the largest national contribution of any country to the global fund--in real, not per capita, terms--thanks largely to the number of regular monthly donors and numerous creative fundraising campaigns. Icelanders, and I count myself among them, are justifiably proud of these achievements, but we all know there is a lot of work that remains to be done. This sub-Arctic island is not a paradise for women; the patriarchy is powerful and ingrained. For example, despite a law on gender quotas on corporate boards, at the time of writing the country has no female CEOs among companies that trade on the Iceland Stock Exchange. The women's shelter in Reykjavík is often fully booked, and reports of domestic violence increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. So when we praise success to date, there is strength to be found in that word but . Being aware of ongoing challenges is the first step in eliminating them, and it does not diminish the significant advances that we have accomplished together. It is this normalization of the value of gender equality throughout all facets of society that is so remarkable to me as an immigrant--as an Icelandic saying goes, my "guest's eyes see more clearly." After I was laid off from my job, my "guest's eyes," which had so blissfully observed a woman nursing her infant during a board meeting, had trouble focusing on the positive again. I was filling out as many job applications as I could, but without a full grasp of the language yet, it was challenging to get full-time employment. To keep busy, I pitched story ideas to a new English-language newspaper, the Reykjavík Grapevine , and covered such topics as the Eurovision Song Contest, where to get a haircut in the capital, and eventually various restaurant reviews (these were my favorite assignments, because I could eat for free at upscale establishments). This led to a part-time but regular gig as a staff writer for Iceland Review , the country's oldest English-language publication, whose team also put together Atlantica , then the in-flight magazine for Icelandair. On my days off, I took on various freelance projects that were usually linked with writing or proofreading English copy. Within a couple of years of my professional nadir, I was my own boss, doing projects I loved, travelling regularly around Iceland and to Icelandair destinations in Europe and North America. By late 2008, I was busy enough that I decided to incorporate my growing business as a company and registered it during the last week of September that year. Ten days later, Iceland's three major banks had collapsed, its currency had plummeted in value, and the nation became embroiled in its worst-ever economic recession to date, dubbed simply the Crash. Iceland was one of the first and most visible casualties in the world of that year's great economic downturn. Although I lost my job, as did tens of thousands of others around the country, my freelance work increased as companies shifted from permanent employees to contractors for vital assignments. Iceland's recovery from financial disaster was remarkably swift, aided in no small part by a dramatic increase in tourism to the country. By 2015, the International Monetary Fund's emergency loan to the Icelandic state had been fully paid off, bilateral relations mended with nations that had been hurt by our banks' bankruptcies, and the country garnered somewhat ill-placed praise for jailing some bankers, overall a remarkable evolution from near catastrophe to economic growth. My professional recovery continued too; I was asked to begin editing the new, more Iceland-focused, in-flight magazine that Icelandair was producing, and a few years later, a friend and I created a retreat for those who love the written word, the Iceland Writers Retreat, which has become an annual feature on Iceland's cultural calendar. I felt equally fortunate in my personal life, due in no small part to family-friendly policies that are the norm in Iceland. Gudni and I married in 2004 and moved into a tiny, nearly hundred-year-old yellow wooden house in the western part of central Reykjavík, just a stone's throw from the sea (admittedly, one is never much farther than that in the city, much of which is located on a peninsula). He got a job teaching at Reykjavik University, lost it in the Crash, and eventually found a permanent tenure-track position in the History Department at the University of Iceland, penning several critically acclaimed books in the same period. I worked on my travel writing skills, spending seven weeks on a solo backpacking trip in West Africa in 2006 and publishing a multipart series in the local newspaper on my travels. Within a month of returning from that adventure, I was pregnant. I would spend almost the entire next eight years pregnant with or breastfeeding four babies who arrived at almost exact two-year intervals. It would barely have been feasible, and not even desirable, were it not for generous parental leave benefits to which Gudni and I were both entitled, even as freelancers, and for heavily subsidized child care from the time the parental leave expired. When my youngest child, and first girl, was sent to the 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. care of a licensed childminder at about one year old, we paid the full fee for her, about $400 a month, including two hot meals and snacks. Thanks to the city's "sibling discount," the preschool for her three-year-old brother was 75 percent off the regular, already subsidized price, and free--except for the cost of meals--for our five-year-old and for the after-school care of our oldest, who was in Grade Two by then. Happily, sleepily, Gudni and I stumbled through those years of early parenthood in a haze of pureed foods and washable diapers and broken household objects. After a few years of regular but unreliable incomes, he had secured his dream job at the university, and I was thrilled to be running the Iceland Writers Retreat and writing regularly. We eventually reconciled ourselves to the fact that our twelve-hundred-square-foot little yellow house would soon become rather a tight fit for our rambunctious brood, and we took out a second mortgage on a larger fixer-upper just a ten-minute walk away. After the stress and hassle of moving and shifting all four children to different schools and preschools, we were settled--and swore we'd never move again until our old age. Presidential elections in Iceland are held every four years on the last Saturday in June. In 2016, with the expectation that the then president, seventy-three-year-old Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, would not seek a record sixth term in office, the number of individuals who announced their intention to replace him was significant. Reykjavík's chattering classes spent extensive time pontificating on the would-be job seekers' varying merits and predicting who might be next to enter the race. Gudni was in the process of writing a book on the history of the presidency in Iceland and was often asked to appear as a neutral pundit on current affairs programs to discuss ongoing political issues of the day. Perhaps, he mused hopefully, he'd even be called upon to analyze the results on election night itself. As it turned out, his television moment arrived a little earlier. On April 3, 2016, a conglomerate of international news outlets released what became known as the Panama Papers, which implicated various political and business leaders in offshore tax havens. One person identified in the papers was Iceland's prime minister, Sigmundur Davíd Gunnlaugsson, who once owned a company that was registered in the British Virgin Islands with his wife. While not illegal under Icelandic law, with the memory of Iceland's economic disruption still fresh in people's minds, protestors gathered outside Iceland's parliament, the Althing, the next day to demand change. Local television stations interrupted their regular programming to cover the protests and their significance. Would the prime minister resign? Would other public figures who were implicated in the scandal resign? Was there other recourse under Iceland's constitution? Could the president play a role in demanding the prime minister's resignation? The debate called for an expert to deconstruct the issues in a digestible way that would not show deference to one political party or another. On April 4, Gudni Jóhannesson, pundit, history professor, father of five, and expert on the presidency, appeared on television, alongside others, for six hours, commenting on the ongoing situation. Then our phone started ringing. Although several accomplished individuals had declared their intention to run for president, at a time when it suddenly became clear that the role, while largely ceremonial, held with it certain powers under the constitution and these powers needed to be well understood, many watched this thoughtfully spoken, insightful man and believed he might just be the right person at the right time for the job. Within a couple of days, the number of emails, Facebook messages, and phone calls from strangers grew from a trickle to a steady stream, all of them encouraging Gudni to take a step he had never seriously considered before--running for public office. Six weeks before the election, on my fortieth birthday, with me and his five children by his side, Gudni announced to a packed concert hall that he was putting his name forward for president of Iceland. With no incumbent in the race, more individuals than ever sought the post; nine made it past the stage of collecting nominations from around the country to have their names listed on the ballot. Of the nine, four were men, three of whom consistently polled over 10 percent of likely voters. All the women but one claimed less than 1 percent support in polls. The exception, who was little known nationally when she declared her intention to seek the office in late March that year (the election was scheduled for June 25) but who progressed steadily in the polls until finishing in second place to Gudni, was none other than Halla Tómasdóttir, former chair of the board of the company where I had worked my first year in Iceland. The young daughter she had been nursing during the meeting was now a teenager. Halla and I encountered each other several times in person during those frantic weeks, always in a friendly way, despite the ongoing competition. (Incidentally, Gudni and I were also well acquainted with a third leading candidate, the writer Andri Snær Magnason.) At times, living in Iceland can feel like living in a dispersed, naturally stunning village. Campaigning for the highest office in the land alongside candidates even a newbie such as me had known for several years seemed only fitting. My life changed irrevocably on June 25, 2016, when Gudni won the presidential election with 39.1 percent of the vote to Halla's second place 27.9 percent; he took office on August 1. As we had been travelling around the country during the campaign, holding rallies, shaking hands, sampling cream cakes and strong coffee, I had had an inkling of what might come. In a whirlwind five weeks between the election and the inauguration, we were in a limbo of sorts, leaving behind our old jobs (his at least), our home, and our anonymity for a future we had only ever glimpsed on television and read about in newspaper articles. Our election team had finished their job of getting their guy the most votes, and the staff of the office of the president, who would stay on into the new administration, were not yet working for us. During that time, we navigated dozens of interviews and other media requests, put our house up for rent, found new schools for the children, decided if we needed new furniture for the private part of the large presidential residence, and tried to prepare the kids for the change to come. Then, as now, I continued my own work. I am called forsetafrú in Icelandic, which translates as "wife of the president." No one suggested I use the word forsetamaki --"spouse of the president." In English, I am generally called First Lady, because it's an easily recognizable term, and even though it's implied, it does not explicitly use the words "wife of." The fact is, though, that being First Lady is not a job. It comes with no salary, no dedicated staff, no clothing allowance, no pension. I was not elected to a position. Yet the presidential office helps to arrange flights and meetings in which I take part (in my capacity as First Lady only). I have my own business cards and letterhead and access to a small office at the presidential headquarters, had I chosen to work there. It is an immense honor and privilege, and every day, I do my best to serve my adopted country in this capacity. The role does come with expectations, many of them more appropriate to an era when men exclusively claimed the spotlight and the women "standing behind them" supported their husbands' caprices. I am only the sixth First Lady since the country's independence from Denmark in 1944. The first three, who served until 1980, were all well-respected women who took on a very traditional spousal role for the era, usually staying away from the public eye and stepping forward only to act as well-coiffed cohosts during large social receptions or state visits. During the sixteen-year tenure of Iceland's only female president to date, there was no consort. When Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson became president in 1996, his popular wife, Gudrún Katrín Thorbergsdóttir, took on various issues, such as drug addiction prevention among youth, and earned much praise in doing so. Gudrún Katrín succumbed to cancer only two years after her husband took office. Ólafur Ragnar married his second wife, Dorrit Moussaieff, five years later. Dorrit, who like me was born and raised abroad, had a spontaneous and friendly nature that was popular with Icelanders. During her time as First Lady, she continued to work for her family's London-based jewelry business, and in her husband's later years as president, she spent much of her time outside Iceland. I have also continued my own projects, including writing this book and running my company. After all, why should I get a new job because my husband was elected to one? This choice has led to some public discussion, but the overwhelming feedback is positive: in progressive Iceland, where the ambition for gender equality has been normalized, of course a spouse of the head of state should pursue her or his own endeavors. From those early memories of seeing women smoothly operate in what I had experienced as male-dominated fields to giving birth to four children in under six years and founding my own business on the eve of a devastating economic collapse, I've had the privilege of enjoying what it's like to be a woman living in arguably the world's most gender-equal country. More recently, I have learned to use my unexpected platform as First Lady to help modernize expectations of an outdated role and to add another immigrant's voice and perspective to the equality fight. Really, in many ways, this book is my love letter to Iceland--an appealingly imperfect country, a society that is constantly working to improve, where debate thrives but solidarity and empathy envelop us when crises occur. A nation where women persist in seeking equality and where most of us feel supported in that ambition most of the time. A country I am proud to call my home, where I have succeeded as an entrepreneur and learned to use my voice when fate handed me a platform, and one where I believe our achievements today will lead to even more equal futures for the generations to come as well as serve as inspiration to people around the world. But my story alone does not paint a complete picture of the joys and challenges of female existence on this North Atlantic island. I wanted to explore what it is about Icelandic society that makes it so conducive to improving life for girls and women--and therefore men, boys, and nonbinary people too. Because surely these lessons can be applied elsewhere, to inspire people in Vancouver and Vermont, in Dundee and Dallas. Do the ingredients for success stretch back to the time of the epic family feuds that were chronicled in the centuries-old tales collectively known as the sagas, which featured numerous tenacious women, or more recently to the 1980 election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world's first democratically elected female head of state? Is it a matter of crediting government-imposed policies, such as heavily subsidized child care and government paid parental leave for both parents, or should we look more to why this society pushes for new laws to be created, like the recent legal amendments to codify the rights of trans and nonbinary individuals? How about the liberal attitude toward single parenthood and sexuality in general, or a broader definition of masculinity? How much can we attribute to the small, cohesive, family-centric society where everyone needs to wear a lot of professional hats in order to have a thriving country? And what can we learn from the recent influx of immigrants, who bring new experiences and backgrounds to Iceland but who face their own unique challenges once here? Certainly, the independent, stalwart, determined women who have left their marks on this society over the centuries have inspired their descendants today, not least through a confidence and belief that we can each play a role in improving our communities. Iceland is a storytelling nation, and many living Icelanders have been raised on a diet of the heroics of women in the sagas, the gumption of those who avenged wrongs, and the grit of those who fought against the odds for their principles. For this book, I spoke to dozens of extraordinary women in Iceland. These sprakkar , to use an ancient Icelandic term, come from all ages and walks of life and regions of the country. Many of them fly under the radar, but their lived experiences nevertheless help portray a society that values the ambition of gender equality and is endeavoring to elevate it. They are women like you and me and the women we know. Together, they form a portrait of life in a country where gender equality is within reach--tantalizingly close to an unfixed finish line--yet also where frequently demoralizing and damaging challenges persist. Whether First Lady, sheep farmer, immigrant, soccer star, comedian, mayor, or sex advisor, we are all Icelanders sharing our stories and insights about what makes this land so equal for so many. And we are revealing the secrets about how we can nurture, support, and elevate the sprakkar who live within us and in our communities so we can all do our part to achieve gender equality, no matter where we live. I . Glöggt er gests augað : "A guest's eyes see more clearly" is an Icelandic idiom that means that those who are new to an environment or who are guests see things in clearer focus than those who have always been there. II . In 1992, Iceland lost this claim after St. Lucia's Derek Walcott became that year's literary recipient. But we are always happy for other nations to perform well in the per capita games. III . Don't make the mistake of referring to Iceland as part of Scandinavia, though. For various reasons that include language, history, and geography, both Iceland and Finland should never be considered Scandinavian nations. Excerpted from Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland's Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World by Eliza Reid All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.