An Icelandic pioneer
(We have pleasure in publishing this biography of a great feminist, written by her daughter, and we should welcome, for future issues of the paper, biographies of other pioneers written in the same intimate way, throwing, as this one does, light on peculiar national conditions, and giving insight into daily life in the heroine's country.— Ed.)
Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir was born on 27th September, 1856 at Böðvarshólar in Vesturhóp, a farm in North-Iceland. She was the eldest of 6 children, two of whom died very young. Her parents were poor, but belonged to good old families, a fact in which she, like so many Icelandic childre, took a secret pride. Her education was that of a country-child of intelligent parents. Before she learned to read she was taught to renarrate the gospel and later she used to thell the younger children everything she heard, the sermon of the glergyman and all the many stories and tales she knew. The glergyman, who used to lend her books, compiled a collection of Icelandic folk-tales. He said that she and another young girls were the best story-tellers he had heard.
There were no schools for children in those days, but in the long winter evenings the father used to read aloud any book, old and new, which could find its way to the remote farm, the few newspapers, even the Parliamentary Gazette. These were eagerly listened to and discussed by the people of the household. Before the lamp was lighted, songs were sung in the twilight, and the old women told stories of "the hidden people", (the fairies), of outlaws in mysterious valleys in the interior of Iceland, and of kings and queens in fairyland. Strange stories about ghosts and spirits of the dead haunted a child who had to pass through the long corridors of the Icelandic farmhouse. But when the little lamp was lighted, the room was cosy, long epic poems ("rímur") were chanted, the mind was trained by a contest in riddles, and the verses flew like balls in a game, for there are ditties in Icelandic for every mood.
The news from outside was received with tremendous interest and was the only and the best recompense given for the hospitality which was offered to every guest, stranger or friend, who came to the farm. From the sagas, the classic litereature of Iceland, the children leared to express their thoughts with the lucid conciseness of the Icelandic language. The fates of the heroes and heroines were known to every child. Time had only thrown into strong relief their greatness and defects. Their passions were eternal. This literature and folklore which had been the common heritage of all had preserved the Icelandic language, the only instrument which the Icelander possessed for creating art —wrought from his own brain.
In such a home Bríet grew up. But nature was also the teacher of the child and taught her many things: to take delight in the ever changing beauty of the scenery, to judge the prospects of the weather from the sky, to find the way where there were no tracks, to know the animals. The best playmates of the children were the ponies and the dogs, the greatest joy imaginable was a ride on a good pony. But such pleasures were rare, for the children had to work hard. Bríet had to take the care of the household on her shoulders when she was a girl of 13, when her mother fell ill and was confined to her bed for four years. There was not much time for reading and the girl felt the difference between her lot and that of her brother who could read at his leisure when the day's work was over, while she had to wait on him, who was consulted by the father on all affairs in spite of his being younger than she, whose advise was never asked although her father loved her dearly. There were no opportunities for a girl except to marry or become a servant. No schools were open to girls, while higher education was free for boys and scholarships were given to encourage them to study so that many poor boys managed by industry and hard work to go to school.
And now the nation was awakening, the struggle for independence had aroused the patriotism of the women, the poets wrote inspired songs, all the youth felt a glowing enthusiasm and a new faith in the future. In 1874, at the millennium of its habitation, Iceland got its first constitution and the parliament, "Alþing", was granted legislative power. By all this Bríet was strongly moved and she says she will always be thankful for having lived in such a great age. In these years, when she was 16-18 years old she wrote her first article on the wrongs of women and their aspirations for a better education, and a fuller life, but she kept it a secret. About this time, women made the first claims for better education and in 1874 a school for girls was opened in Reykjavík, and in the next years two more in the country. At about this time Bríet left the home of her mother, who had become a widow and given up the farming. She stayed with a relative and his wife for two years. He was a clergyman and one of Iceland's best known politicians and possessed an excellent collection of books which were at the disposal of his cousin. A loan enabled her to spend one winter at school, after which she passed the usual examination (of the 2nd class) and came out at the top, although most of the other girls had attended the school the year before. This was all the education available to an Icelandic girl at that time. Bríet says that she would have given any other prospect of happiness offered in life for the possibility of satisfying her thirst for knowledge. For some years she earned her living by teaching children.
In the meantime, in 1882, the parliament had given municipal suffrage to widows and independent unmarried women. In 1885 an article appeared in 'Fjallkonan' on the enfranchisement of women, written by the editor, Valdimar Ásmundsson. Later in the same year an article by Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir was published in the same paper (the first newspaper article written by an Icelandic woman). It dealt with the subjection of women and their claims for freedom and education, and was chiefly the same as she had written in her early girlhood. In 1887 she was the first woman to give a lecture on the position and rights of women, which was well received by the press and the public. In 1888, she married the editor of Fjallkonan, Mr. Valdimar Ásmundsson. During the first year of marriage she devoted herself entirely to the care of her home and her two children. Her husband suggested that she should edit a women's paper, but it was not until 1895 that she started the paper, this time on her own account. Simultaneously, another women's paper appeared, although Bríet had been the first to start the subscription. her paper, the "Kvennablaðið", was for home and educational reform, while the other, the "Framsókn" stood for politics and temperance. "Kvennablaðið" was widely circulated and won the editor many friends.
In 1902 Mrs. Bríet lost her husband and co-worker, Valdimar Ásmundsson, who died suddenly. It was a serious blow, and now she was left alone to care for the education of her children. In the first months after his death, she edited his paper and a small journal for children. In 1904 she went abroad, for recreation and study. She made the acquaintance of many prominent women in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and saw many social institutions, on which she wrote in her paper. In 1906, in the invitation of Mrs. Catt and a Danish suffragist Mrs. Münter, she attended the congress of I.W.S.A. in Copenhagen. In 1894, a women's association in Reykjavík had been founded with the object of working for the political equality of women. Mrs. Bríet had been among the founders. After the death of the leader, Miss Þorbjörg Sveinsdóttir, in 1903, the association had however turned from its political activities. The political women's paper "Framsókn" had also ceased to appear. On coming home with the inspiration of the Congress fresh in mind, Mrs. Bríet threw herself into the campaign for women's suffrage, or, rather, she opened it. On her initiative a Women's Rights Association was founded in Reykjavík, she travelled around the country founding branches, and organising public meeting and from that time she devoted her thoughts to the women's movement. In 1907 women got universal municipal suffrage and eligibility. It was difficult to find women who were willing to stand for election because the law permitted them to decline receiving the seat. But when she stepped into the breach three others were found and all four were elected on a non-party women's list supported by all women's organisations of the town. She was a member of the town council from 1908-1911, and from 1913-1919 and had a seat on the schoolboard during both periods.
She had at heart many reforms, some of which she succeeded in introducing, such as the installation of a school physician, free meals for poor schoolchildren, swimming lessons for girls, playgrounds for children, and others, the introduction of schoolnurses, for instance, were later carried through. Still others, such as a police-woman for Reykjavík, are yet to come. In 1915, Icelandic women got restricted suffrage, subject to an age limit. At the elections in 1916 Mrs. Bríet stood for election to Parliament on the list of the Home Rule Party, but as the seat was a hopeless one, her association felt disappointed that they had not been offered a better seat for her, consequently they did not work for the list, and she was not elected.
In 1918, by the treaty with Denmark, Iceland became a sovereign state, and in its new constitution of 1920, women were granted full political suffrage and eligibility. The Kvennablaðið had then reached the age of 25 years. It had advocated all the reforms which somen had obtained during these years. The demands raised at the first public meetings of women had gradually been granted. In 1911, all schools, scholarships and posts in State Service were thrown open to women on the same terms as to men. In 1919, the Government introduced three bills dealing with the "Family Law", the position of illegitimate children and marriage and divorce. There was a prospect of a revision of the Marriage Law (passed in 1923). Municipal and political suffrage had been won. The paper had fought like a gallant warrior, and it had lost its circulation when it turned from the home to politics. The editor reluctantly resolved to give it up. For many years it had been a voice in the desert. But the women who had been indifferent to the work of the suffragists now thronged to the polls. Once in the water they would learn to swim.
Iceland was among the first countries of Europe to give women political suffrage and the first of the Svandinavian countries to give municipal suffrage to widows and independent women. In parliament the cause of women did not meet any vigorous resistance, but the granting of the franchise was deferred, partly because the parties in power did not want to risk their seats by new elections, the franchise being included in the constitution for the amendment of which new elections had to take place.
The women's movement grew side by side with the national fight for independence and all parties wanted to outbid each other in respect of their liberal views. And by inheritance the Icelander loves the name of liberty and is usually ready to admit the theoretical right of any human being to be free and independent. But just as in Christianity the idea of universal brotherhood is recognised by all and yet the millennium has not been attained, so in Iceland, man, in spite of his love of liberty, is not less prejudiced than elsewhere, and woman has not yet become his equal. And even then the goal would not be reached. Because the enfranchisement of women means the liberation of her soul with all its dormant possibilities.
Therefore the Icelandic Women's Rights Association continues its activities in teaching women to make use of their newly acquired rights.
Mrs. Bríet has now retired from its leadership but she still takes an active part in the work of the association and in the women's movement. Under her presidency two women's congresses have been organised and the third is in preparation. She has also energetically worked for the erection of a clubhouse for women. Through her association and paper her name has in fact been connected with almost every reform won for women in Iceland. It is not for her daughter who writes these lines to give a description of her. One of the members of her association thanked her on the part of women, as the captain who has braved the storms and kept watch when the crew were sleeping. Her daughter knows better than andybody else how her mother loved the women of her country and what she felt when she saw their tired hands lifted in protest against the indifference of the men to the injustice of their lot. How her heart warmed at their sympathy and how great is the loneliness of pioneers. How she was always willing to bear any insult and to forget herself for the cause of women. She has been a woman of a clear brain and extraordinary courage, hers vas a warm heart and a burning indignation. She has kept her strong interest in every aspect of life. The struggle has left her unbowed. In her we see embodied the characteristics of our women of the sagas.