Author: Stefan Jonasson
Whatever else you do on June 19th this year, set aside a little time to celebrate one of the great milestones in the fight for women’s equality. It was on June 19, 1915 that Icelandic women won the right to vote in elections for Alþingi, the country’s parliament. Although it was a limited franchise – only women 40 years of age or older received the vote – it was nevertheless a real accomplishment after a struggle that had lasted for some three decades. Shortly after Iceland became a sovereign state in 1918, the age limitation was removed and women were enfranchised on the same basis as men.
The campaign had begun in earnest in 1885, when Valdimar Ásmundsson, the editor of a new magazine called Fjallkonan, wrote an article on the enfranchisement of women. Three years later, he married Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, the pioneer leader of the women’s movement in Iceland, and together they championed the cause of equality between women and men.
As early as 1882, widows and single women of independent means had received the right to vote in municipal elections and, in 1907, this right was extended to all women. In 1894, the Icelandic Women’s Association was founded with the expressed purpose of achieving political equality and winning the vote for women. The following year, Bríet established her own newspaper, Kvennablaðið (The Women’s Magazine), as a vehicle for domestic and educational reform.
In 1907, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir launched the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, saying, “The experience of the last fifty years or so has proven to women elsewhere in the world that in order to establish equality between men and women and gain full political citizenship for women, only one thing is essential, that thing being the cornerstone for all other women’s rights; that thing is political rights: women’s suffrage and women’s eligibility in politics. All other rights are derived from this.”
The following year, Bríet was elected to the Reykjavík town council, along with three other women, on a women’s slate. She served until 1911 and then again from 1913 to 1919. In 1916, she became the first woman to stand for a seat in Alþingi as a candidate for the Home Rule Party, but she was defeated.
The first woman to successfully compete for a seat in Alþingi was Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, who was a leading educator and principal of Kvennaskólinn (The Women’s School) in Reykjavík. She was elected to Alþingi in 1922 as the leader of Kvennalistinn (The Women’s List). In subsequent elections, she was returned as a member of the Conservative party (Íhaldsflokkurinn), retiring from the Alþingi in 1930. She was vice president of the upper chamber of Alþingi from 1925 to 1927.