Iceland’s First Lady on feminism, our “remarkable” Queen and meeting the new King Charles

·11-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

There’s something charmingly imposter syndromey about Eliza Reid, the First Lady of Iceland since 2016, as she tells me how she had to Google how to courtesy for the Queen of Denmark, how “of course” she sometimes searches her own name on Twitter, and still can’t believe Hillary Clinton has read her book.

Then again, most of us would probably pinch ourselves occasionally if we found ourselves the spouse of the leader of a country they weren’t born in and knew very little about growing up. After a childhood spent on a farm in rural Canada, the 46-year-old mother-of-four now finds herself entertaining world leaders from the Bidens to the Zelenskys, sipping tea with Nordic royals, and among the chosen VIPs invited to attend the state funeral of Her Majesty the Queen.

“It was an honour to be there, not least because I grew up in Canada and Her Majesty was Queen of Canada too,” she says of the three “sombre” but “remarkable” days she spent in London last week.

A brief bit of context, first, in case you didn’t recognise Reid and her husband sitting just in front of Joe and Jill Biden in Westminster Abbey last week (she wouldn’t expect you to — Iceland’s population is smaller than that of Halifax).

The Canadian writer, bestselling author and modern history graduate met her now-husband Gudni Johannesson, a “curly-haired single Viking dad” at the time, while they were both studying at Oxford University when Reid was 22. They fell in love, she proposed, and nearly two decades later he was elected as president of Iceland, a country with a population of just 360,000 and said to be one of the happiest in the world — in a large part, thanks to its progress on gender equality, a subject close to Reid’s heart.

Her new book, Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World (sprakkar is an ancient Icelandic word meaning “extraordinary women”), is a part-memoir, part-current affairs book and tells the stories of many of her country’s everyday women, from fisherwomen to sexual health instructors to knitting experts.

It’s already a New York Times Editors’ Choice and was called “a fascinating window into what a more gender-equal world could look like” by Clinton, who read one of the earliest seen-copies when it was still just a Word document. “I’ve got to show you this!” Reid says, spinning around in her chair and holding a physical copy up to the camera. “They even do it in Korean.”

 (Eliza Reid)
(Eliza Reid)

Reid might be Zooming me from her official office in Iceland’s presidential headquarters, but her manner is certainly far from the formal, stuffy First Lady tropes of old. She’s painted the walls of her office bright yellow because it feels more “energetic” and apologises for wearing no makeup, explaining how she’s making the most of a few “non-makeup days” amid a busy autumn schedule.

Just last week, she and her husband were pictured meeting the King Charles at Buckingham Palace before the Queen’s funeral, where they rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most famous heads of state. She thought the VIP coaches “worked very well”, despite all the media fuss, and was impressed with how smoothly such a massive operation was implemented. “It was a very memorable event for us personally... We had a chance to walk briefly around a traffic-free central London and we both remarked on how clean everything was. Rubbish cleared away, and so on. It was remarkable.”

We were so impressed with how smoothly the Queen’s funeral was implemented... London was so clean, it was remarkable

Reid and her husband did not meet prime minister Liz Truss because “there was no pressing need” on this occasion, but she has met Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska, who also attended the funeral and was pictured meeting Kate Middleton, the new Princess of Wales, ahead of the event. “She’s very, very smart,” Reid says of Zelenska’s approach to social media, where she shares powerful images of the war with Russia.

“I don’t think that she set out to be world famous for what she’s doing, but she’s realised that she has this platform and she has an opportunity to be able to remind people of some of the human impacts of war, and she’s doing that very effectively. That’s very important for the people of Ukraine: to know that their leaders are there and stand with them.”

In many ways, this approach of Zelenska’s is a lot like Reid’s. The Canadian-born writer describes her upbringing as “relatively normal” and clearly still has to pinch herself to call herself First Lady of a European country. She tells me of a realisation she had early on in her tenure as First Lady: that “rather than worrying about whether I should be talking about gender equality when I have a platform for something my husband achieved, maybe I should just... use the platform and not overanalyse whether or not I should be.” Her mantra now? “I’m not going to be serving in this role forever, so while I have a platform I want to do the most good that I can with it.”

In the six years since her husband took office, Reid has made gender equality the main focus of her work, using her unpaid role to raise awareness of how a more equal world benefits everyone, not just women. “I make a concerted effort not to be seen as an accessory to my husband” she wrote on Facebook in 2019 in criticism of media coverage of leaders’ spouses. The following month she wore a white pantsuit to meet former US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, which many interpreted as a symbol of solidarity with the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Since then, she’s advocated on gender rights, giving speeches on women in business and calling out media outlets for sexist coverage. “#dowomenexist,” she wrote on Facebook in October last year, when she was missed from photo credits of a picture of her meeting the Crown Prince of Denmark.

Clearly, Reid’s persistent efforts have paid off. The World Economic Forum has named Iceland as the world’s leading country for gender equality for the last 12 years in a row and the tiny nation is famous for having more women in Parliament than any other country (nearly 48 per cent) and the highest proportions of women working outside the home — achievements many put down to Iceland’s famously generous family leave, subsidized childcare and social associations such as its saumós (sewing clubs).

Rather than worrying about having a platform for something my husband achieved, maybe I should just... use the platform

But Reid is careful to point out that her country’s progressive stance is down to more than social societies and policies. “I wouldn’t say it’s a specific policy [that stands out in Iceland],” she tells me. “It’s the agreement that gender equality is going to benefit everybody in society and therefore this idea that we’ve passed the tipping point of arguing whether this is important, but how we are going to achieve it. That encompasses everything from widening out the definition of masculinity to supporting the women’s football team when we’re competing in the European Cup to men taking their own parental leave.”

Reid and her husband both took several months of parental leave in a clear statement that equality is just as important in the home as it is around the negotiating table. The oldest of their children is 15 — so what’s it been like raising teenage sons in the current climate? Reid says seeing her boys go through teenagehood makes her “happy for humanity”, but admits it’s difficult.

“We focus a lot on raising daughters to be confident and independent and strong and smart, but we also need to be raising our boys to express their feelings and not to talk about women in these demeaning ways and not to expect that. And to realise that some narrow definition of masculinity that they see is not the only type of man that they can be.”

She tries to raise them as feminists, pointing out sexism in pop culture, teaching them about consent in relationships and encouraging them to speak out against inappropriate “locker room” behaviour. But “it’s hard,” she adds. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that growing up.”

Reid hopes her new book on Iceland’s incredible women will help to add to that narrative that an equal society is a better one. She wrote it over lockdown, after being inspired by the 90th birthday of former Icelandic president Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world’s first democratically elected female head of state.

As a writer and founder of Iceland Writer’s Retreat, Reid had wanted to write a book for years (“we have this phrase in Iceland that ‘everyone walks with a book in their belly’”) and the pandemic offered a window of opportunity. Walking her kids to school one day, she realised the answer was right on her doorstep. “That was the spark that got me thinking,” she says of Finnbogadottir’s landmark birthday. “I realised that we have women’s achievements like this in Iceland and sometimes we forget that not everybody knows about that... People ought to.”

We need to be raising our boys to express their feelings and to realise that some narrow definition of masculinity is not the only type of man that they can be

Reid knew she didn’t want to write a book on the history of gender equality so instead she set about trying to paint a modern portrait of her country: a combination of her background as a profile and travel writer (she used to edit Iceland’s in-flight Stopover magazine) and a memoir from her time in office.

“Rather than writing a history or a dry polemic or a policy-in-numbers focused book, I really wanted to tell the stories of everyday people that we could all somehow relate to,” she says. Sheep shearers, knitting tour operators, sexual health instructors and the rap collective Daughters of Reykjavik are among the eclectic array of everyday Icelandic women she interviews for the book.

The book was published in February and Reid is delighted that so many people have connected with the concept of “sprakkar” in the title. “I love the idea that Icelandic has a word that describes only women and in a uniquely positive way, which I don’t think we have in English,” she says.

Now, her focus is on getting men to connect with it, too. “When people come to book signings, the men almost always say: ‘It’s for my partner or their daughter or their mother’ and part of me wants to say: ‘It’s also for you’” — not just because it’s a “love story to Iceland”, but because improving livelidhoods for everyone in society “should surely be of interest to everybody”.

Reid and her husband take their seats in front of the Bidens at the Queen’s funeral (via REUTERS)
Reid and her husband take their seats in front of the Bidens at the Queen’s funeral (via REUTERS)

Gender problems when it comes to readership are far from unique to Reid’s book. “Women tend to buy books by men and women, and men tend to buy books by men,” she continues. “That’s the default and we see that all the way down to children’s books. If it’s Harry Potter it’s for all children but if it’s Anne of Green Gables that’s a book for girls. I think we really need to rid ourselves of that mindset; that idea that books focusing on women’s empowerment should only be of interest to women.”

Reid says she would never want to tell other countries what they should be doing, but she hopes her book inspires people to change how they think about gender equality. “I think that very often we see an issue like gender equality a bit like the climate crisis; that it’s such a huge issue that we as individuals can’t really have an impact,” she says. “Of course elected officials are the ones who are going to be passing laws or deciding where that pot of tax money goes...

We need to rid ourselves of the mindset that books focusing on women’s empowerment should only be of interest to women

“But beyond that I think it’s really about living life with these gender equality and diversity glasses on. It’s about the arts and culture we’re consuming, how we talk about people in the media, how we raise our children to discuss things on social media, what the definition of masculinity and feminity is.”

She returns to the meaning of sprakkar. “It’s an Icelandic word but it’s not an Icelandic concept. There are inspiring women everywhere,” says Reid. Just look at the Queen, who she never even met but who touched her life in so many ways, as a Canadian citizen, as a leader, as a mother.

“I always admired her devotion to duty, her steadfast presence and her humour,” she adds. “I never had the chance to meet her but I would absolutely say she was one of the most remarkable women of my lifetime.”