“It was very rare then for girls to study abroad”
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (1930) served as the president of Iceland from 1980 to 1996. She was the first woman in the world to be elected head of state in a national election. She was interviewed by the novelist and translator Kristof Magnusson.
Magnusson: What kind of a world were you born into – Iceland of the 1930s?
Finnbogadóttir: I grew up in a fairly cosmopolitan milieu. My father studied engineering in Copenhagen and later became the first professor of engineering at the University of Iceland. My mother went to Berlin and to Vienna for graduate school, she became a nurse and a very prominent woman, as she was Chair of the Icelandic Nurses Association for countless years.
Magnusson: Did you feel, at the time, that Iceland was outside of Europe?
Finnbogadóttir: I felt that Iceland was the centre of gravity. I was raised in a very rich Icelandic, a wealth of language. My grandfather was a priest and a teacher of Icelandic, he was constantly forcing books upon me. Yet I was equally interested in what lay beyond Iceland, because I was planning to be the captain of a ship.
Magnusson: A captain?
Finnbogadóttir: Yes, I was determined to sail abroad and see what Europe was like. I was around ten. They patted me on the head and said, ‘You can’t do that, dear, because you are a girl.’
Magnusson: They said that?
Finnbogadóttir: Yes, that’s why I find it so neat when I fly, and a woman’s voice comes on the microphone and says, ’Hello, this is Captain Sigríður Sigurðardóttir”. But yes, people were always talking about world affairs at my house, and during the war, there was always a map on the wall of my father’s office. This is where we kept track of the war and its battle lines as they shifted.
Finnbogadóttir: Were you worried that the war would someday reach Iceland?
Finnbogadóttir: Oh, yes. I thought, ‘Now I won’t be able to see the things I wanted to see in Europe.’ I know, that’s selfish.
Magnusson: Is it true that you started collecting postcards of European artworks because you were afraid that they’d be destroyed?
Finnbogadóttir: Well, I collected pictures from art books and hung them on my wall. I had Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin. My girlfriends had pin-up pictures; I had this.
Magnusson: After the War, however, Iceland had become an independent country and you could finally go to France, in 1949.
Finnbogadóttir: I wanted to go to France more than anything else, as I wanted to see this cradle of modernist culture. I wanted to find out about how Impressionism had originated there and immerse myself to avant-garde theatre. When I came home to Iceland, I helped found the first avant-garde theatre and translated the French playwrights. It was very rare for girls to study abroad and I’m very grateful to have been allowed to.
Magnusson: Did you feel a lack of international works in Iceland back then?
Finnbogadóttir: We brought it home with us. European culture had a special importance in light of the American culture that had arrived here very dominantly. Movies, for example, all came from America. It’s important to remember, that we’re an island; so our border is the ocean. Back then, needless to say, there was no internet and such, so it was very important for us to cross the ocean and see what went on on the other side. It was even more important than for people on the mainland. u
Magnusson: Those were obviously exciting years for culture. But also politically a lot was happening.
Finnbogadóttir: Politics was more distant. I was mostly thinking about culture. There was so much happening in theatre and literature, and in the women’s movement – Simone de Beauvoir was on everyone’s lips.
Magnusson: In Germany, many people idealised Europe as a kind of saviour, a force that could change the world. And that was bound to politics.
Finnbogadóttir: For us Icelanders, it was bound more to culture. But we have never, ever seen ourselves as anything other than Europeans. Our foundation, or the root of Icelandic history, lies in Europe.
Magnusson: When you think of your years in the presidency, did you find that any of your previous jobs were particularly helpful to you in office?
Finnbogadóttir: Yes, above all the theatre. To understand people is vital in an office like the Icelandic presidency, which is not a political one. The Icelandic presidency is about having the people’s trust, to be the people’s symbol of union. That’s why I’m so glad that I realised early on that I needed to get the children involved. In those years Iceland was very dry, with a great deal of soil erosion. Everywhere I went, I planted three Icelandic birches. One for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the unborn children.
Magnusson: How lovely!
Finnbogadóttir: At first, actually, people laughed at it; you know, a woman, planting trees. Journalists were on the lookout for a soft spot, because I was the first woman doing this. It hurt me, but it died down quickly. The nice thing is – though I had no notion of it at the time – trees bind carbon. Now there are many woodlands in Iceland, from that time, that are flourishing and expanding.
Magnusson: Did that often happen, that people sought to criticise you and chalked it up to the fact that you’re a woman?
Finnbogadóttir: At first, of course, many people were opposed. No woman was ever supposed to take this job. I won by a very small margin.
Magnusson: As you ran, did you believe that you could actually win?
Finnbogadóttir: I was roped into it. I refused at first, then a trawler crew out at sea sent me a telegram so big, it was like an accordion. They had all signed. It really was what tipped the scales. Icelandic seamen appreciate women keenly because women see to everything while they’re gone. Women are the minister of finance, the minister of culture, the architect – seamen know that they can fully trust a woman.
Magnusson: So you see that as the point when everything changed.
Finnbogadóttir: It was a very strong summons, but it still took effort. I had to travel around the whole country … and I wasn’t married. That was one thing that was very hard for the nation.
Magnusson: You were divorced and a single mother.
Finnbogadóttir: There was a lot of discussion on candidate debate nights, ‘What are you going to do, without a man?’ 1980 was a watershed, when Icelanders elected a woman. Things have changed greatly and, to my mind, really, my one accomplishment in life was to give young girls and women confidence in themselves: ‘If she can do it, so can I.’
Magnusson: This had an impact not just in Iceland but also abroad, it was something that put Iceland on the map.
Finnbogadóttir: Yes, it did. I received a clipping from China, in Chinese characters, with a front-page picture of me. It was world news. Which is remarkable, given that it was as late as 1980.
Magnusson: There was a major event during your presidency, in 1986, the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik.
Finnbogadóttir: That summit was a watershed, too. As it ended, we Icelanders wanted that an agreement be signed here, reuniting Europe and all the rest. But we came to recognise that the door had been opened, even though no accord could be reached. Less than three years later the Wall fell.
Magnusson: Truly incredible.
Finnbogadóttir: And we may be eternally grateful that the summit took place in Iceland, midway between East and West. It’s an island, it’s completely neutral, it’s ideal.
Magnusson: Neutrality was a great advantage then, and now many people give this as a reason why Iceland should not enter the European Union.
Finnbogadóttir: We did not join the EU, but back then I signed the EFTA agreement, because I wanted Europe – the universities – to remain open to young people. We are Europeans with a cordial friendship with the United States. But I didn’t want to make us dependent on the United States.
Magnusson: Is it a good thing that Iceland isn’t in the European Union?
Finnbogadóttir: I have no particular opinions on it. But I think this arrangement is the best one for us. Norway and Lichtenstein have the same arrangement and I think we’re well-placed there, with them.
Magnusson: You’ve told me about many things that strongly influenced you as a student, but what excites you in today’s culture – in books, music, and visual art?
Finnbogadóttir: I feel we today are in a strong position culturally, we Icelanders. With so few of us, we can’t cultivate certain specialties, yet we can run a national theatre, we have a symphony orchestra that is brilliant by international standards and we have various cultural centres here that stand on an equal footing with cultural centres abroad. One fear is that we urgently need to digitalise our language. We need to preserve this old tongue, and that’s a defensive game because so much cultural material in English is being imported. Our culture includes such invaluable medieval memories. We don’t have castles, but we do have medieval sagas. All over the world people pore over these sagas.
Pessimism saps people’s courage.
Finnbogadóttir: We always need to keep watch about a language spoken by such a small population. But we’re lucky in Iceland. In South America invaluable languages disappear as kids go to school and learn in the official languages and forget the old language that they spoke to grandma and grandpa. In Iceland we’re very fortunate to have so much written material in Icelandic. All our authors still write in this language.
Magnusson: Shall we talk a bit about the future? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Finnbogadóttir: Pessimism saps people’s courage, but optimism empowers. It’s very hard to say this – people are sick, people live in war-torn districts – but nonetheless: Believe in what is brighter than today.
Magnusson: How do you feel about the school kids who are protesting adult inaction on climate change now, every Friday?
Finnbogadóttir: This, exactly, is faith in the future. Faith that one can do something through protest.
Magnusson: What do you think is the greatest threat facing Europe now?
Finnbogadóttir: I am very disturbed by anti-immigrant sentiment. We have to realise that we are all people. We were so harmed by this, after the War – regarding someone as lower than one’s self. But let’s not forget the fifth century migrations, either; those were all our ancestors, moving north from southern countries. We’re all cut from the same cloth, just not equally lucky in being born in a place more favoured than the next.