From Scandinavian Review, nr. 3, 1977, pp. 60-64.
The Day the children came to the offices
By Else Mia Einarsdottir and Gerdur Steinthorsdottir
The 24th of October, United Nations Day, 1975, was a memorable occasion in Iceland. All across the country women, from every walk of life, stopped working - simply took the day off! United under the theme of the International Women´s Year, EQUALITY - DEVELOPMENT - PEACE, Icelandic women demonstrated to themselves and to the world the importance of women´s contribution to society.
Preparations for the International Women's Year in Iceland started in the spring of 1975. Representatives of the country´s five largest women´s organizations (with a total membership of thirty thousand) formed a committee together with a UN representative. One of the goals of this committee was to organize a Women´s Congress in Reykjavík in June, 1975.
More than two hundred women delegates attended that congress in June. It was the first time Icelandic women of all ages, all classes and all political parties had met to discuss matters in common. At the time, the mass media claimed that this congress was the climax of the International Women´s Year in Iceland, but there was a great deal more to come. A motion was put forward: "The Women´s Congress held in Reykjavík June 20 and 21, 1975, urges women to take a day off on October 24, United Nations Day, to demonstrate the importance of their work."
The idea of a women´s strike in Iceland was not new. It had been suggested at a meeting of the feminist Redstocking Group as early as October, 1970. Four years later, in January, 1975, the idea was again discussed at a conference held by the Redstockings and women from low-income groups.
The eight women who wrote the motion for the 1975 June Congress had been very carefully chosen to represent a broad range of age, life and political party. Much of the success of the action can be attributed to this selection. In August, the eight women met with a Redstocking representative and sent letters to trade unions, women´s organizations, and other interest groups inviting them to appoint representatives to organize activities for October 24. The responses were very much in favour of the Day Off. On September 11, representatives of over fifty organizations and interest groups in the Reykjavík area met. They were informed of the results of a poll of several workplaces which shoved that 80-100 percent of the employed women were in favour of the action. The meeting then elected an Executive Committee of ten women and formed five action groups - a public relations planning group, a mass media group, a finance goup, a program group, and a national group to contact people outsinde the Reykjavík area. Finally, a person was chosen to be in charge of coordination between the groups. Her work proved to be most valuable, especially during the last hectic period before the Day.
The weeks following the September meeting were indeed eventful. The President of the Federation of Trade Unions supported the action in an interview with the press, and the second largest women´s trade union became the first to give financial support. The public relations group circulated 47.000 copies of a letter headlined, "Why a Day Off for Women?" and the mass media group sent out its first press release. This was sent to all mass media in the country and to correspondents of foreign radio stations in Iceland. It declared that the strike would comprise all women in the country.
Financial support came from the five organizations that had met in 1974, as well as from a number of political groups, trade unions and a variety of other associations. Letters of support poured in from individuals and societies of all kinds. Twenty-five thousand stickers reading "Women´s Day Off" were printed and sold. Soon they were to be seen everywhere; on clothing, handbags, walls and windows. A poster was printed reminding women of women´s work trough history and encouraging women to stand together on October 24. Five thousand copies were prepared and circulated in workplaces.
From the start, the organizers aimed for the greatest possible participation. Now they had to decide whether the action was to be a strike or a day off. It was felt that a "strike" would be very unpopular to many women. Besides, it was illegal. But everyone may take a day off without grave consequences. So the action was named "Women´s Day Off" (Kvennafrí). However, the mass media and many people continued to use the terms "strike" and "day off" interchangably until October 24.
The length of the action was also a matter of discussion. Would a couple of hours be sufficient? Or would an entire day off be more impressive? It was decided to take the entire day off.
With the Day rapidly approaching, the organizers were working day and night. All the work was done on a voluntary basis. The mass media were kept busy, The papers were full of information about women´s conditions, sex discrimination and the lack of equality between the sexes. Two of the daily papers published a weekly page throughout the year on equality between the sexes. Their editors were active in the organization of the Day. Programs were arranged on radio and television; all possible connections were used to inform the people about the action. Foreign correspondents, mainly from the other Nordic countries, showed a growing interest in the action. At first, news appeared primarily in the women´s magazines, but other publications and newspapers soon sent reporters to Iceland. Some journalists were attracted by the extension of Iceland´s fishing limits to 200 miles on October 15, and stayed on for the women´s action.
The 24th of October dawned. The weather gods appeared to favour the action, for we had mild, dry weather. The public relations group had declared at a press conference that the rally in the downtown square would be the largest demonstration ever seen in Iceland! News from all parts of the country told of the interest in the action and the preparations for the Day. Early in the day the radio broadcast songs written by and for women, and the editorials of all the morning papers dealt with women´s role in society (at the request of the mass media group). This day was to be social in the life of Iceland. Ninety precent of all women in the nation stopped working. The community was brought almost to a standstill. Day nurseries were closed. Elementary and secondary schools were closed. All the big shops, the milk shops, the factories of the fishing industry and the theaters were closed. Business slowed down. Housewives walked out of their homes and husbands had to take their small children to work with them - or else stay home. Cooking and other household chores were also in men´s hands that day.
At two o´clock there was a rally in the downtown square. Women came from all directions and joined forces in the square. Some of them carried posters demanding "Equality at Once", "Development, Peace, Equality of Pay", "More Day Nurseries." One of the posters asked, "A Day Off - and Then?" A women´s brass band played the suffragette march from the British TV film Shoulder to Shoulder, which had recently been shown in Iceland.
The rally lasted for two hours and was a tremendous success. There were various speakers, including two women members of Parliament who urged women to take a more active part in politics.(Iceland has, by far, the lowest percentage of women in municipal government and in Parliament of all the Nordic countries). Many songs were sung. One which was written especially for the Day went: "Why Women´s Day Off?/Women are joyous now/They ask for unity." There we stood, shoulder to shoulder, 30.000 women. We felt the power that women represent when they stand together.
The Executive Committee had set up several open houses in the city. After the rally, the women went to these houses to talk and have a cup of coffee. Entertainers, all of them volunteers, went from one open house to another, singing, playing and performing songs and plays suited to the occasion.
In the evening, a radio progam was presented on which representatives of the Day discussed the action and news was reported from all parts of the country where rallies had been organized. Over twenty rallies had been held outside of the Reykjavík area.
This day proved difficult for many men. Banks, stores, workshops and offices abounded with children. Some of the children had never seen their father´s place of work before. For the entire day, the fathers had complete responsibility for the children. Some men still talk about the "long Friday."
An explanation of the overwhelming participation in the Day Off must take into account several factors. Iceland is a small country - about the size of the state of Virginia - with a population of 220.000. Until the turn of the century it was a rural society, but since World War II the nation has become heavily urbanized. Yet it is essentially a classless society. Icelandic women have historically enjoyed more freedom than most of their sisters in other countries, an they have stood together before, as for instance, during a mass campaign for a State Gynecological Hospital in 1969-70. Certainly, the fact that the Day Off was well planned, well publicized and well organized aided its success. Other factors are perhaps of no less importance - the favourable weather, the right atmosphere, and last, but not least the International Women´s Year itself.
Else Mia Einarsdóttir, born in Norway, is a librarian and co-founder at the Library of Women´s History in Iceland, and is also chairman of the Women´s Commemorative Fund. Gerður Steinþórsdóttir, a student of literature at the University of Iceland who has studied the past year at Uppsala in Sweden, was a member of the Executive Committee for the Women´s Day Off.