March 04, 2020

Icelandic Women | Myths, Role Models & History

by Ragnheidur Harpa
Ragnheidur studied anthropology with a minor in media so it might not come as much of a surprise that she is curious about the nature. She loves educating others about her findings or her home country, Iceland. Ragnheidur is into country living, traveling, Icelandic horses, the Icelandic naming system, plants and all things having to do with food and beer. Her favorite places in Iceland are the Westfjords and the South Coast but she has lived in downtown Reykjavik for the last few years.
Icelandic Women | Myths, Role Models & History

It’s long been a myth abroad perpetuated by internet memes that all Icelandic women are beauty queens looking for foreign husbands to take care of them, but that is simply a myth. Your average Icelandic woman is typically educated and committed to fighting for gender equality, and there are more than enough Icelandic men (and women) for each woman.

The fight for women’s rights in Iceland has most certainly been a journey, with many u-turns and backlashes but also victories and beautiful moments full of hope and optimism. However, when it comes to tourism, the famous tale of the island in the north where everyone is a promiscuous super model has proven difficult to overcome.

Linda P Miss World from Iceland

In truth, Iceland has had four Miss World winners and having premarital sex is not frowned upon. However, when certain airlines advertise “dirty weekends” to Iceland promising connections with a gorgeous Icelander has not been met with smiles. Thankfully, today we have begun to see change. We had hoped to be recognized for our feminist values and our fighting spirit, and thankfully, the global news media caught on. After all, there is a lot to talk about on that matter. 

Iceland is a country of choice and opportunities. You are pretty much free to do what you want. And, we are proud of our rights to do so. We breastfeed in public if we want, we wear what we want, we study what we want, we shave or we don’t shave, we build muscles if we want, we sleep with who we want, and we run for office if we want. The only thing that really bothers us is being told that we can’t do something. That’s when you’ll really see the Viking blood boil. 

 However, let’s get to the facts. 

Gender Equality Facts About Iceland

  • Since the year 2018, it has actually been illegal to pay women less than men for the same job (which is, of course, how it should be). 
  • Iceland had the first democratically elected female president in the world, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.
  • As well as the first only gay Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. 
  • In 1923, the first Icelandic woman took her place in Althing, the Icelandic parliament. This was Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason.
  • Iceland was the second country to set up a SlutWalk event only months after it originated in Canada.
  • In Iceland it is neither unusual nor is it frowned upon for people to have children with more than one partner. 
  • Women don’t take up their husband’s last name when they get married. Instead, they keep their last name throughout their lives. However, their last names usually come from their father’s first name. Although there has been a huge change in this during the last two decades. More and more women are giving their children their first name as their children’s last. 
  •  The rate of female participation in the labor force runs at more than 80%, compared with just over 90% for men. This is the highest in the world! 
  • The vast majority of Icelanders don’t celebrate Valentine’s day. Instead, we have Women’s Day and Men’s day, which is actually called Farmer’s day (it’s an old tradition). 
  • When the financial crash happened in 2008 it was, in big part, women who led the rescue.
  • The maternity and paternity leave in Iceland goes up to 12 months in 2021. The split is 5-5-2, meaning that 5 months go to parent A, 5 months to parent B and they decide together what to do with the remaining 2 months. Until 2020, it had been 9 months split 3-3-3 however in 2020 it went up to 10 months with an equal split.  
  • The last fact deserved a category of its own…

The Famous Icelandic Women’s Strike

In 1975, Icelandic women who worked outside the home earned less than sixty percent of what men would get for the same job. So, when the United Nations announced that 1975 would be International Women’s Year an idea sparked within the Redstockings women’s group to strike as one of the honorary events celebrating the International Women’s Year. 

They decided to call the strike “a day off” as they figured that this phrasing would be more appealing to draw in participants. Moreover that women who would partake could not be fired as they are allowed to “take a day off” but could have been punished or even fired for simply walking out without an explanation.

The word of the event was spread through radio, TV, newspapers and eventually garnered international attention.

Employers prepared for the 24th of October, the day without women, by buying candy, paper and pencils as undeniably fathers would have to bring their children into work. Humorously, hot dogs, one of the easiest Iceland meals to make sold out in many grocery stores. 

On the day

So, on the 24th of October in the year 1975 90% of Icelandic women went on strike, to protest wage discrepancies and unfair employment practices in the country. The idea was to show just how indispensable the work of women is to the Icelandic society as well as the economy. The women who took part not only walked away from their paying jobs but also refused to do housework or take care of their children showing plain and simple the weight of their contribution.

The capital, as well as small towns all around the country, were paralyzed. At the rally in Reykjavík, women listened to the speakers, sang together, and spoke amongst each other about what could be done to achieve their goal, gender equality in Iceland.

The following year, the Icelandic parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal pay. The strike is thought to have paved the way for Vigdís Finnbogadóttir who five years later was elected the first female president. 

Although the 24th of October 1975, unquestionably led to a drastic change in the employment system in Iceland this has been done every ten years since and will, most likely, continue until complete equality is reached. The women strikers leave work early showing the difference in gender-wages. A man working until 2 pm would make the same salary as a woman working a whole day if they had the same wages. So, in 1975, the strikers left work at 2:05 pm and in 2005 they left at 2:08 pm. Sadly reflecting on the progress that had been made in the last 30 years. The strike is now held at a more frequent pace, with one in 2010 (2:25 pm) and another one in 2016  where they left at 2:38 pm.

The Legacy of the Women’s Strike

The legacy and the fight lives on, but in 2016 the Black Monday in Poland was modeled on the 1975 Icelandic strike and in 2017 and 2018 a global version of the strike was held, inspired by the Icelandic one.

But let’s end on a more positive note, in 2018 the government passed laws finally making it illegal to pay women less than men with actionable punishment for those who do. Hopefully taking us much closer to the original goal, equality for all! 

Inspiring Icelandic Women

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir 

Vigdis and daughter Astridur
Photo from

The world’s first democratically voted female president as well as the first person most think about when the topic of inspirational Icelandic women comes up. She is the icon of the strong Icelandic woman, who did not take no for an answer, fought the patriarchy and eventually became the president of the Icelandic nation. At that time Vigdís was a single mom who had just battled breast cancer. When a news reporter (insanely) asked Miss Vigdís how she was planning on leading the nation with just one breast she famously replied: “well, it was never the intention to breastfeed the nation”. A living legend! 

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

Jóhanna was born on the 14th of October 1942, she sat in parliament for 35 consecutive years from 1978 to 2013. To this day, she is the longest sitting female politician in the Icelandic Parliament.  She was the Social Minister from 1987 to 1994 and again from 2007 to 2009. Jóhanna became Prime Minister in February 2009 making her not only the first female Prime Minister of Iceland but also the first openly gay Prime Minister in the world! 

In 2009, Forbes picked Jóhanna for their list of 100 most powerful women in the world. One of her most famous remarks is “my time will come” but she said those words during a speech within her political party after having lost in an election where she was running for the party’s leader. This was in 1994 when she had just started her political career. Those words would prove to be true again and again.

Annie Þórisdóttir

Annie was the first Icelander to win the fittest women on Earth (2011) and has since then not only won again but landed in total five times on the podium of the Crossfit Games. Additionally, Annie was the first woman to be a repeat champion of the games. She is the co-owner of Crossfit Reykjavík in Iceland where she trains and coaches. In 2012, she was the highest-paid athlete in Iceland. 

Katrín Tanja Davíðsdóttir

Born in 1993, Katrín Tanja has twice won the fittest women on Earth but she is the second woman to repeat as champion. She is currently one of the best Crossfit athletes in the world as well as being the author of the book DOTTIR. She beautifully embodied the female athlete body in ESPN’s Body Issue in 2019 where she openly discussed her workout philosophy and what made her the best. 

Björk Guðmundsdóttir

Iceland’s most famous human, probably ever. Björk Guðmundsdóttir or Bjork like you might know her as was born in Reykjavík 1964. She became a child star in Iceland, later joined and started numerous bands before moving to London to further pursue her dreams. Her band, the Sugarcubes became quite famous and did well but it wasn’t until Björk went solo that thing really kicked off. Today she is one of the world’s best selling artists, always a step ahead of everyone with the new technology and innovative ways to promote her art. 


She is a climate and educational activist, a feminist, an artist, an icon and many times over an award-winning musician. Björk is Iceland’s most celebrated export! 

Auður Djúpúðga 

She was the wealthy Viking woman who commanded and sailed to Iceland with her shipped packed with family and friends. Upon arrival, the ship crashed but everyone survived and Auður eventually started a farm in the West of Iceland. Many like to trace the colorful never-give-up spirit of Icelandic women directly to her but most Icelanders can in some shape or form link their heritage to her. She is, for example, 30 times over my great grandmother. Find out more about Auður in our blog about the Vikings in Iceland

Hildur Yeoman

It is hard not to fall in love with Hildur Yeoman and her namesake brand, Yeoman. Hildur is an incredibly talented fashion-designer strongly capturing the work hard and believe in yourself spirit that our Viking fore-mothers brought with them. She owns a boutique on Skolavordustigur (the street down from Hallgrímskirkja church) where she sells her gems and we can surely recommend a visit. Hildur has won numerous awards, been chosen Fashion Designer of the Year in Iceland and dressed stars such as Taylor Swift, Ellie Golding, Bebe Rexha and fellow Icelander, Björk. 

From her website: “Each item in her collections is made to embrace and flatter the female form and to transmit the abundant Icelandic heritage of self-empowered women.”

Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir – Owl Fisher

The transgender activist and the moral compass, Ugla, has been in the spotlight a lot in recent years. She is a journalist, a writer and trans campaigner as well as being the co-director of My Genderation, which is a film project focusing on trans lives and experiences. She led Trans Iceland for a few years before moving to London to pursue further work.

Ugla, along with her husband, Fox Fisher, work as advisors on the All About Trans. A project which is aimed to create a positive presentation of transgender people in the media. Moreover, the couple co-wrote the Trans Teen Survival Guide, to help empower transgender and non-binary teens. She was picked for the BBC’s top 100 women of 2019! Follow her social media accounts for some great insights. 

Hildur Guðnadóttir

The first Icelander ever to win an Oscar, Hildur Guðnadóttir burst onto the Hollywood scene in 2019 creating the score for the award-winning Joker as well as the television series Chernobyl. For her work on the Joker, Hildur won the Academy Award for Best Original Score but she was the fourth woman to win in the category. Moreover, she received the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Original Music, making world history as the first-ever solo woman composer to win in both! 

She is an incredibly talented composer who makes captivating music that truly embellishes each frame and we can’t wait to see what she does next. 

Get to know more of them through Ted Talks

Halla Tómasdóttir 

And before 

Vilborg Arna Gissurardóttir

Icelandic Female Names 

The Icelandic language is not the easiest, there is no way around that fact. However, even so, many parents from other countries are now deciding to name their children using Icelandic names. Most of them after having previously visited Iceland on a memorable trip. Some of us know the story of the Beckham boys being named after the places they were conceived at, maybe you are looking to do the same. Anyways, I am here to help. Let’s go over the most common ones, the (easiest) international ones before going for some more granular pickings. Albeit, I will only be going over the female names. As this is, after all, a blog about women. 

Icelandic Girls Hugging

The Most Common Icelandic Female Names 

  1. Guðrún
  2. Anna 
  3. Kristín
  4. Sigríður
  5. Margrét
  6. Helga
  7. Sigrún
  8. Ingibjörg
  9. María
  10. Jóhanna

The Most International Icelandic Female Names

  • Anna, grace
  • Aníta, little Anna
  • Arna, eagle
  • Freyja, the pagan goddess of love and fertility 
  • Ebba, bear short for Asbjorn
  • Gríma, masked or night 
  • Harpa, the instrument or the old month (spring)
  • Heba, wife of Hercules
  • Hekla, the Icelandic volcano
  • Katla, another Icelandic volcano
  • Hilda, battle
  • Hrefna, a raven
  • Júnía, June
  • Karitas, love, endearment
  • Lukka, luck or happiness
  • Saga, saga
  • Sunna, sun
  • Von, hope

Icelandic Female Bird Names

  • Arna
  • Erla
  • Kría
  • Lóa
  • Svana
  • Svandís
  • Svanhildur 
  • Svala
  • Ugla

Icelandic Female Ocean Names 

  • Alda 
  • Bára
  • Hafdís
  • Hrönn
  • Mardís
  • Marhildur
  • Rán
  • Sædís
  • Unnur

Icelandic Female Flower and Tree Names

  • Björk
  • Fífa
  • Flóra
  • Fjóla
  • Fura
  • Hvönn
  • Íris
  • Lilja
  • Rós
  • Rósa
  • Róshildur
  • Sóldögg
  • Sóley
  • Viðja
  • Ösp

Icelandic Female  Mountains and Volcano Names 

  • Bera
  • Esja
  • Hekla
  • Katla

How Many Women are in Iceland? 


If you are wondering about the men to women ratio in Iceland. The newest report from the Statistics of Iceland from late 2019 says that male residents of Iceland outnumber females by approximately 10,000. In more detail, 186,220 men compared to 176,640 women. The large-cap, at least by Icelandic standards, can mostly be explained by the number of foreign males citizens who are in Iceland temporarily to find work. 

Oh, and last thing. Just to be clear. The Icelandic government is not paying men to marry Icelandic women.

As you can see by the numbers above, Icelandic women are actually outnumbered by men. Therefore there wouldn’t even be a rational reason for this to be true. Icelandic women have had no problem choosing their men (or women) for the past thousand years and surely don’t need the government to help with it now. 

However, I would be very interested to know where this unbelievably resilient myth comes from. I bet that’s a good story! 

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