1975 – The day Iceland’s women brought the country to a halt

In 1975, Icelandic women’s rights groups called on women to ‘take a day off’ to protest the fact that they earned 40% less than men. The protest, triggered by the UN International Women’s Year 1975, successfully showed how indispensable women were to the country’s economic and national life. Its lasting impacts on gender equity can still be seen today.

Word spread of the ‘day off’, resulting in 90% of the country’s women stopping work on October 24. Schools, banks, factories, shops, theatres and airlines either closed or struggled to function. At home, wives, mothers and grandmothers took the day off, bringing almost every aspect of home and public life to a halt. Men had to bring their children to work and do household chores.

25,000 women marched Reykjavik to hear speakers condemn women’s inequality in Icelandic society and call for their voices to be heard in national politics. “It was the real grassroots,” recalls Elin Olafsdottir, who later represented the Women’s Alliance on Reykjavik city council. “It was, in all seriousness, a quiet revolution.”

The following year, Iceland’s parliament passed a law guaranteeing women equal rights to men. Although the law did little to change wage and employment disparity, it was a big step towards true equality, as it paved the way for the election of Vigdis Finnbogadottir, Iceland’s (and the world’s) first democratically elected female president five years later.

Iceland is today seen by many as the world's most feminist country because of its many laws protecting women’s equality, including equal pay, mandatory participation of women on corporate boards, financial support for parental leave and education on gender equality.

The legacy of the ‘day off’ survives: every 10th anniversary, women stop work to demonstrate their importance to the country and continue the struggle for equality. “We say in Iceland, ‘the steps so quickly fill up with snow,’ meaning there is a tendency to consign things to history,” says Vigdis. "But we still talk about that day – it was marvellous.”