Iceland's fourth president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir
My hero, Madam President
Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president of Iceland in 1980 and became the world's first woman democratically elected as head of state. WOW magazine columnist Guðrún Baldvina Sævarsdóttir says it took her a while to get used to a male president:
I am born in 1980, the same year Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected President of Iceland. She served four consecutive terms so it wasn't until I was 16 years old that I was faced with the startling reality of a male president.
Icelandic nouns are assigned to gender and take on different articles and inflections accordingly. The Icelandic noun “forseti” or “president” is a masculine noun much like most nouns with the same ending. And yet 18 years after Vigdis Finnbogadottir's last term in office and Mr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was installed as president I still struggle with the address “Mr. President” instead of the usual “Madam President”.
It also took me a while to accept the fact that presidents could be married. I, along with the rest of my generation, was raised to a presidential icon of a single, working mother. The rather petite, fair-skinned woman of elegance, charm and wisdom became the unifying symbol of Icelanders, men and women. Make no mistake about it, every Icelandic president before and after Vigdis has been male and I am fully aware that, globally, female presidents are few and far between but as a result of this female role model I grew up to, I have no qualms about women's ability to lead the free world. And yes, in true Icelandic fashion I see no difference in being the president of Iceland or say… the United States of America.
The then 50 year old single mother was already a public figure in Iceland, having worked as artistic director of the Reykjavík Theater Company for many years and was frequently seen and heard in television and radio. With degrees in French, English and education, Vigdis Finnbogadottir devoted her presidency to the preservation and integrity of Icelandic culture and at 83 years old she's still a prominent figure in Icelandic society, doing various humanitarian works and getting involved in pressing issues of equality and human rights.
The other day I was out walking in really bad weather when some friendly driver stopped their car to let me cross the street. As I peered through the rain and wind to wave a thank you at the driver I saw the smiling face of Madam Vigdis Finnbogadottir behind the wheel. The same smiling face I often see at the grocery store, swimming pool or art galleries.
That's the thing about Iceland, icons and heroes are usually your neighbors, sometimes your friends and almost always a relative.
Text: Guðrún Baldvina Sævarsdóttir
Photos: Gunnar Elísson