Women’s History Walking Trail in Central Reykjavík

By Auður Styrkársdóttir. © Kvennasögusafn Íslands 2003

This project was supported by grants from:
Reykjavík City Council
Menningarsjóður Íslandsbanka
Eimskipafélag Íslands

Brochure for download

  1. Reykjavík City Hall

In 1907 women married to men voters, as well as unmarried women who paid taxes, were allowed to vote for the first time in local elections in Reykjavík. In January 1908 the women’s organizations of the town put forward their own list of candidates for the town council election. It received nearly 22 % of valid votes cast and four women representatives entered this formerly male-dominated political arena. The women’s organizations continued to post their own lists in elections to the town council until 1918.

      In 1959 the first woman mayor was elected by the town council; she only served for one year. The next woman mayor was elected by the town council in 1994 and served until March 2003. Six women and nine men were elected to the city council in the election of 2002; women thus comprise 40 % of the present city council.


  1. Tjarnargata 12

This building served as Reykjavík City Hall 1914-1929 and the Fire Department 1913-1966. It was also the living quarters of Elka Björnsdóttir (1881-1924), who cleaned the mayor’s office and the Fire Department in the years 1917-1922.

      Elka’s story is typical of many young women in Reykjavík at the beginning of the 20th century. As a child she was a good student, but formal education for girls was not easily available where she was born. Elka came to Reykjavík in 1906 where she educated herself by reading books and magazines and attending lectures open to the public. She became a housemaid and labourer in Reykjavík until she gained her position at City Hall. Her job included lighting the fires in all the building’s fireplaces, cleaning them and taking the ashes out. She also cleaned all the floors. As roads in Reykjavík were unpaved in these days, Elka’s battle against the dirt was a stiff one.


  1. Vonarstræti 12

The home of Theodóra Thoroddsen (1863-1954) during the years 1908-1930. Theodóra’s husband was a prominent politician and they had thirteen children. Theodóra attended the Women’s School in Reykjavík (see No.14), and showed avid interest in politics, especially women´s rights issues, all her life. Theódóra contributed much to the town’s cultural life. In middle age she became a writer and is best known for works in semi-rhyming prose verse, often preserving traditional lore.


  1. Aðalstræti 14-16

An excavation on this site found indications of living quarters from the Settlement Era (9th century) under the hotel, which many believe to be the remains of the farmhouse of Ingólfur Arnarson and Hallveig Fróðadóttir, the first settlers of Reykjavík. There is a statue of Ingólfur Arnarson at Arnarhóll in the centre of Reykjavík, and the square Ingólfstorg is named in his honour. Hallveig Fróðadóttir has a very small street in Reykjavík named after her (see, however, No. 6).

      Margrethe Angel had a house on this site in 1791-1796. She cultivated a garden and sold vegetables, something most townspeople had never before seen. Margrethe received an award from the Danish Agricultural Society in 1792 for her garden.

      In 1831-1848 the town’s first primary school was run here, a private affair that eventually had to close due to financial difficulties.


  1. Aðalstræti 12

Augusta Svendsen (1835-1924), Reykjavík’s first female shop keeper, ran a shop here 1897-1924, after which her granddaughter took over. The shop sold neckties, aprons, pillows, lamp shades, clothing and patterns.

      Across the street stands the town’s oldest well, Prentsmiðjubrunnur (Printshop Well). The town wells were no longer used after water lines were laid in 1909. Carrying water from the wells provided many elderly people, both men and women, with a little income, but the work was often looked upon with scorn.


  1. Túngata 14 (Hallveigarstaðir)

Women’s societies financed the construction of this building and named it Hallveigarstaðir in 1967, to honour Hallveig Fróðadóttir (see No. 4). The Women’s Right Organization, founded in 1907, the Federation of Women’s Organizations in Reykjavík, founded in 1917, and the Icelandic Federation of Women’s Organizations, founded in 1930, have their offices in the building.


  1. Vesturgata 3b (Hlaðvarpinn)

Stígamót, the women’s organization against sexual violence, was founded on 8th March 1990. In 2002, twenty-four men and 231 women came for a first interview here to seek help and advice from the staff.


  1. Plots between Hafnarstræti and Tryggvagata

Before ca. 1900 the ground here was used for drying fish. Spreading the fish out on the ground and then piling it in stacks was mostly women’s work. Women also carried coal and other cargoes from the boats unloading the ships in the bay to warehouses which stood on these plots. It was very difficult work and women workers were paid half as much as men workers. Male workers founded a union in 1906 which women were not allowed to join because the men feared competition for work and in wages. Women labourers later founded their own union, Framsókn (Progress), in 1914. These two unions merged in 1997.


  1. Tryggvagata 19 (Customs House)

The mosaic decorating the front of the building is the creation of Gerður Helgadóttir (1928-1975) and was put up in 1973. Gerður Helgadóttir was an acclaimed sculptress. She donated many of her works to her hometown, Kópavogur, and the town has built an art gallery named after her where visitors can learn about Gerður and her work. The gallery also presents exhibitions of other artists.


  1. Pósthússtræti 3-5

Built as Reykjavík’s Primary School in 1883. When this building was replaced by a new school in 1898 it became the town’s police station. It is now an office building.

      The first female police officer was hired in 1941, and her job was to keep an eye on young towngirls who were regarded as having too much contact with British or American soldiers who occupied Iceland from 1940 onwards. The first regular female police officers were hired in 1953, but were not allowed to wear uniforms until 1976, and only in 1978 were they allowed to perform all types of police work. At the beginning of 2002 women officers made up 9.5% of Reykjavík’s police force.


  1. Lækjartorg

On 24 October 1975, the United Nation’s International Women’s Day, an estimated 25,000 Icelandic women gathered here for the biggest rally ever held in Iceland.  The wheels of society came to a stop as 95% of Icelandic women went on strike to call attention to the importance of their work inside and outside their homes. Women in almost all of Iceland’s women’s organizations worked fervently to make the strike successful, and the labour unions also actively supported the strike, thus ensuring its success.


  1. The City Courthouse (on Lækjartorg)

Auður Þorbergsdóttir (1933-) was appointed the first woman chief city court judge in 1972. She was also the first woman to marry couples in Iceland, beginning in 1963 (civil marriages). At the beginning of 2003 there were 21 city judges, six of them women.


  1. Austurstræti 4 (Thorvaldsensbasar)

The so-called “bazaar”, actually a woolens and souvenir shop, is run by Thorvaldsensfélagið, the oldest women’s association in Reykjavík. It was founded in 1875 by young women who were asked to put flowers on Austurvöllur and sell coffee and cakes when the statue of Bertel Thorvaldsen, an Icelandic-Danish sculptor, was officially unveiled.  The statue was a gift from the town of Copenhagen to commemorate 1000 years of settlement (the statue was removed to gardens by the lake in 1931 to make space for the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, the Icelandic national hero) and who then wanted to put their combined energies to good use to benefit the townspeople. Thorvaldsensfélagið is a humanitarian association with women and children as its beneficiaries. The association has run the bazaar since 1900 and members work without pay. All profits go to humanitarian projects.


  1. Thorvaldsensstræti 2

This house was built in 1878 for the Women’s School founded in 1874, the first in Iceland. The school provided young women with two years of education in general subjects as well as instruction in good housekeeping. The couple who built the house and founded the school did so with money collected from beneficiaries in Iceland and Denmark. The building served as school premises until 1909 when a new school was built on Fríkirkjuvegur (see No. 24).


  1. Kirkjustræti 12

From 1941 to 1956 the women’s organization Líkn (Relief) ran a tuberculosis prevention centre in a building on this site. The organization was founded in 1915 by a handful of women in Reykjavík who were horrified by the appalling state of health care in the town. Prominent among them was the nurse Christophine Bjarnhéðinsson (Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir’s sister-in-law (see No. 25). The organization hired a nurse to care for the poorer people of the town who could not pay for care. The women also collected and distributed clothes and linen. The organization established a tuberculosis sanatorium in the town in 1919, as TB was the most prominent as well as the deadliest sickness amongst townspeople at that time. In 1919, the organization Líkn opened a pre-natal centre in town. It was responsible for almost all preventive health care in Reykjavík until the 1930s when the city council as well as the government of Iceland began their first steps towards the national health care system that all Icelanders benefit from today. The city council overtook the operations of Líkn in 1956 when the first health care centre was opened in 1956. The last president of the organization was the nurse Sigríður Eiríksdóttir, the mother of former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.


  1. Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament (Kirkjustræti)

Icelandic women gained suffrage in parliamentary elections in 1915, although this was restricted to only those 40 years and older (!), and full suffrage in 1920. The first woman elected to parliament was Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, the headmistress of the Women’s School (see No. 14 and 24). She ran for election at the head of a special women’s list in 1922, which received 22% of the vote. Women’s progress toward full political citizenship has been very slow. Women comprised only 0-5 % of MPs until 1983, when a special Women’s Alliance entered the scene. Following the outcome of the ensuing election, the proportion of women MPs jumped to 15 %, and Icelanders have witnessed a steady increase in women MPs since then. After the election in May 2003 women comprise 30% of MPs, a step backwards from the election of 1999, when women comprised 35% of MPs.


  1. Skólabrú 2

Built in 1912 by the physician Ólafur Þorsteinsson, this building served as both premises for his medical practice and his family home. The building now houses the archives of the Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament.

      The physician’s family always had 1 or 2 housemaids. They were usually young women, more often than not girls from the countryside who came to Reykjavík to look for work and even educational opportunities; learning good housekeeping was regarded as good preparation for running their own homes. At Skólabrú 2 the housemaids acquired invaluable knowledge of domestic duties. The housemaid woke up before other family members, lit the fires, woke the children, fed them and saw them off to school, cleaned the floors, washed the clothing, shopped and assisted with meals. The wages of housemaids in general were low and their only time off was every other Sunday and after 14:00 on Thursdays.

      Housemaids became difficult to find during and after World War II. With the British, and later American, occupation of Iceland, young women became a sought- after work force in jobs that paid better than housemaid positions. New domestic appliances also vastly changed the practice of running a household.


  1. Lækjargata 8

The home of Þórunn Jónassen (1850-1922), the president of Thorvaldsensfélagið (see No. 13) 1875-1922. Þórunn was one of the four ladies elected from a women’s list of candidates to the town council in 1908 (see No. 1) and served until 1914. Þórunn was also Thorvaldsensfélagið’s representative on the so-called National Hospital Committee, which the women’s organizations in Iceland established in 1915 in order to commemorate the suffrage gained on 19 June of that same year. The organizations decided to establish a fund to finance the building of a hospital for all Icelanders in Reykjavík, the only hospitals in Reykjavík being the French Hospital, the Lepers Hospital and a hospital run by nuns. The women collected money and donated it to the government. One-third of the cost of building the National Hospital which opened at Hringbraut in 1930 came from this fund-raising.


  1. Lækjargata 4

Kristín Bjarnadóttir (1812-1891) and her husband moved into a house that stood here when they moved to Reykjavík in 1871. Her husband died in 1882 and that same year the Icelandic parliament approved a motion that granted municipal suffrage to widows and other independent women (they could not stand for election until 1902). This was the first step taken towards women’s suffrage in Iceland. Kristín exercised her right to vote in 1888, the first woman in Reykjavík to do so.


  1. Reykjavík’s Grammar School (Lækjargata)

The grammar school now educates young people 16-19 years of age, in preparation for university. The school moved into the building in 1846 and parliamentary sessions were held here until 1881 when Parliament House was built.

      Girls could sit for exams at the school from 1886, but were not allowed to attend classes until 1904. The first girl wrote exams here in 1890 and in 1897 the first girl graduated without ever having attended classes. Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir’s (see No. 25) daughter was the first girl to attend classes, and she graduated in 1910.

      Young Icelandic women had fewer educational opportunities in Iceland than in Denmark, where secondary schools and colleges were opened to women in 1875. Being under Danish rule meant that Icelanders were in fact Danish citizens. Thus, young people of Iceland were entitled to education in Denmark on the same basis as Danes. The first Icelandic girl to earn a university entrance qualification did so in Copenhagen in 1889.

      Mrs. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the president of Iceland 1980-1996, graduated from the Reykjavík Grammar School in 1949 and later taught at the school.

      Today there are numerous upper secondary schools in Iceland, attended by both boys and girls. Since the 1980s girls have outnumbered boys.


  1. Lækjargata 12 (now Íslandsbanki)

Jónína Jónatansdóttir (1869-1946) and her family lived in a house that stood here for many years from 1920 onwards. Jónína was the first president of Framsókn, the women’s labour union (see No. 8), from its establishment in 1914 to 1934. She was also one of the founders of Alþýðusamband Íslands (The Icelandic Federation of Labour) and the social democratic political party Alþýðuflokkurinn in 1916. Jónína was elected as a candidate for Alþýðuflokkurinn to the town council in 1920 and served until 1922.


  1. Móðurást (Lækjargata)

The statue Móðurást (Mother’s love) was created by sculpturess Nína Sæmundsson (1892-1965) in Paris 1924 and was awarded a place of honour at the Autumn Show in the Grand Palais. The Art Society bought the statue in 1928 and put it up in the public garden, Mæðragarðurinn (The Mother Garden). The statue was the first non-memorial statue to be erected in Reykjavík.

      Nína Sæmundsson lived most of her artistic life in the US. In 1931 she won a competition for a symbolic figure to be placed on the front of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, beating some 400 contestants. The sculpture was entitled The Spirit of Achievement.


  1. The Primary School (Fríkirkjuvegur 1)

Built in 1898, the school now houses the Educational Centre of Reykjavík. Many women taught at the school, and most of them were active in the women’s associations of the town, including the Women’s Rights Organization.

      The women elected to the town council in 1908 (see No. 1) were active on the school board. In 1909 they proposed that children of poor families be given one meal a day in the school kitchen. This was approved and these children received free meals in the school well into the 1930s. They also proposed that the school floors be washed daily instead of only being swept, and that the school hire a doctor to look after the health of the children, measures which were also adopted.


  1. The Women’s School (Fríkirkjuvegur 9)

Although the school itself  was established in 1874, the present Women’s School building dates from 1909. Until 1904 Icelandic girls and young women had no other educational opportunities in Iceland apart from the women’s schools that various women’s organizations established in several locations around the country. These schools combined academic education with household instruction. An important side effect of the schools was to provide a forum for networking between young Icelandic women which young feminists later availed themselves of in their struggle for women’s rights.

      The Women’s School became a grammar school in 1979, similar to the Reykjavík’s Grammar School (see No. 20), and boys were allowed to attend in 1971.


  1. Car park for Alþingi (Templarasund)

The Good-Templars (IOGT) erected a building on this lot in 1887, which was demolished in 1968 but served until that time as one of the main meeting places and dance halls in the town.

      On 30 December 1888 a young woman gave a lecture on the status of women in this house. The house filled with people curious to see the first Icelandic woman brave enough to give a public lecture. The woman was Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, who later founded the monthly Kvennablaðið (Women’s Paper) and the Women’s Rights Organization. She was also one of the first women elected to the town council (see No. 1). Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir has been called the mother of women’s rights in Iceland. Unfortunately there is no statue of her in Reykjavík. The Library of Women’s History has established a committee with the mission of erecting a statue of Bríet Bjarnhéðindóttir, preferably on this site.

Áslaug Agnarsdóttir
Björg Einarsdóttir
Emilía Sigmarsdóttir
Guðjón Friðriksson
Guðný Gerður Gunnarsdóttir
Keneva Kunz
Landsbókasafn Íslands – Háskólabókasafn
Polly Welts Kaufman
Sigríður Th. Erlendsdóttir
Stefanía M. Pétursdóttir

*Last edited 11 June 2020