Coffee With A Woman Who Changed Iceland

Of all of Iceland’s unique statistics, one stands out. Back in 1980, the island country elevated the world’s first democratically-elected female head of state. It was an emergent time for female leaders. England’s Margaret Thatcher and Israel’s Golda Meir had risen to be prime ministers. But Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first to become a top leader through a popular vote.

Finnbogadóttir left office in 1996. But on our tour of new ideas and pioneers, we wanted to meet her. It’s certainly a long shot to expect to meet a former head of state, especially one with a world’s-first superlative. But we put in a request anyway. Her assistant responded ten minutes later. “She’d love to host you for coffee, here’s her home address.” There’s a joke in Iceland that you can look up the president in the phone book and call directly. It’s not just a good joke, though. It’s true.

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Photograph by Spencer Millsap

We prepared a list of questions—about her presidency, about Iceland’s allure to the world—then knocked on her front door. “Hello Madame President” is what I should have said. Instead, I tried to gracefully pronounce her name. And ungracefully failed.

In her living room over cups of coffee, Finnbogadóttir (pronounced Vig-deesh Feen-bo-gay-doe-tier) told us about her time in office, a lengthy 16 years during which the world was industrializing and the Soviet Union was falling. “The Icelandic people were very courageous to elect a woman,” she said taking a sip of coffee. Iceland is a democracy, but its presidency was designed to be more ceremonial than political. The legislature makes laws and the president signs them, much as in the U.S., but the position—at least when Finnbogadóttir held the office—is more of an approval figure. Finnbogadóttir never stopped any bills from becoming law. She’s very proud of that.

Before becoming president, Finnbogadóttir was a theater director. After a popular uprising of women in the 70s, which included a national day of striking over low wages and few opportunities for female workers, people urged her to run for office. Finnbogadóttir uses some of the same one-liners as Margaret Thatcher, the no-b.s. British leader who navigated being a woman in a traditional boys’ club. “Never try to be a man if you’re a woman” Finnbogadóttir told us dryly. “You have to realize that the world was so late in discovering the head of the woman.” She told us about the times she met Ronald Reagan and when Pope John Paul II said how excited he was to see a female president. Hillary Clinton once came to Iceland, too.

Nowadays, Finnbogadóttir, at 83, is still very busy. She runs a school of foreign languages at the University of Iceland and is active in the Council of Women World Leaders, a group she helped create. She also gets asked frequently to write the forwards in people’s books. “I’m so busy I didn’t know how I would fit you in!” she said joking about our visit (but probably only half-joking). She had a piano, I asked her if she played, imagining we could stand around and sing old Icelandic tunes as she worked the ivories. That never happened.

Perhaps because Iceland is a country of just 320,000 people, it could be the first to elect a female president. Or perhaps it is even more remarkable that a small country had the courage to do what a big one couldn’t.  While I mused out loud, she cut me off.

“I have to correct you,” she said smiling, a little through her teeth. “Iceland is not a small country. It’s a very large one, sitting in the middle of two continents.”

Fair enough. We had to get back to exploring more of it. A few minutes later, our cups empty, she walked us to the door. “Your daughters will be grateful for the work of women in my generation,” she said as we got our coats on. We smiled. Then, as if we’d been visiting a close relative, the former president shut the door behind us.