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Vigdís Finnbogadóttir: The World’s First Female Elected President

Photo of President Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland with U.S. President Ronald Reagan during his trip to Iceland for the Reykjavik Summit, Oct. 10, 1986. https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/archives/photographs/large/c37391-18.jpg Photo used under Ronald Regan Presidential Library Terms of Use.

This Saturday, August 1st, marks the 40th anniversary of Vigdís Finnbogadottir’s inauguration as president of Iceland in 1980. She was the first woman to be democratically elected president in any nation on June 29, 1980. She won the simple plurality vote with 33.8% of the votes, ahead of Guðlaugur Thisorvaldsson (32.3%), Albert Guðmundsson (19.8%), and Pétur J. Thorsteinsson (14.1%). Vigdís Finnbogadóttir served for 16 years, until August 1, 1996, making her the longest- serving elected female head of state to date. In 1984, she ran uncontested. In the election of 1988 she won against Sigrún Þorsteinsdóttir with 94.6% of the vote. In 1992, she again ran uncontested. She chose not to  run in 1996. Despite her lengthy tenure as president, she is not the longest serving President of Iceland. That record is held by her successor, Olafur Ragnar Grímsson, who was president from 1996 to 2016. To date, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir is the only woman to ever hold the post of President in Iceland. As a little girl she had not dreamed of becoming president, but wanted to become captain of a ship.

History of Women’s Suffrage in Iceland

Women in Iceland received the right to vote in local elections before the right to vote in national elections. Single women and widows gained the right to vote in local elections in Reykjavik in 1882. Married women achieved the same right in 1908. Women gained the right to vote in national elections in 1915 while Iceland was still part of Denmark, when the Danish King Christian X signed a bill sent to him from the Icelandic Parliament in 1913. In accordance with the law, women had to be at least 40 years of age to vote, while men only had to be 25. Following the enactment of the Danish-Icelandic Union Act of 1918, Iceland adopted its own constitution in 1920 (Stjórnarskrá konungsríkisins Íslands), which provided that all Icelandic men and women of legal age (currently 18) had the right to vote. Icelandic women have a history of high voter participation, with 73 to 91% of women voting in the presidential elections between 1952 and 2016.

Women in Political Leadership

Following Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s election as president in 1980, Iceland has elected only two other women to high office, both prime ministers. Sitting Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir (elected in 2017) and the first female Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (elected in 2009). Sigurðardóttir and her spouse were one of the first couples to wed when same-sex marriages became legal in Iceland in June of 2010.

Role of the President in Iceland

The power of the Icelandic presidency is regulated in the Icelandic Constitution. The president’s main role is to represent Iceland as head of state, similar to the role of king and queens of constitutional monarchies of other Nordic countries. Although the president is tasked with signing legislation passed by the Icelandic Parliament, bills that are left unsigned still become law but will trigger a secret vote in Parliament, the results of which decide whether the law shall stand or be repealed. (Article 26.) The president also has the power to pardon crimes. (Article 29.) He or she must live in Reykjavik. (Article 12). The president appoints ministers. (Article 15.)

In order to nominate a presidential candidate, a person must be sponsored by at least 1,500 but not more than 3,000 voters. (Article 5.) The presidential term is four years starting on August 1, and ending on July 31 four years later. (Article 6.) There is no term limit for presidents in Iceland, which explains the long reigns of Finnbogadóttir (16 years) and Grímsson (20 years).

The most recent presidential election was held on June 27, 2020. The incumbent president, Guðni Þ. Jóhannesson, was re-elected with 92% of the vote. He has been president since 2016.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttirs Legacy

As described above, the role of the president in Iceland is different than that of the president of the United States and more ceremonial. That said, Finnbogadóttir certainly put Iceland on the map when she hosted the Reykjavik Summit where U.S. President Ronald Reagan met with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 11-12, 1986.

Since her presidential career ended, Finnbogadóttir has served as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for world languages. Languages were a big part of Finnbogadottir’s life even before she became president. In one of her previous jobs, she worked as a French teacher.

Reportedly, Finnbogadóttir lived by a personal motto: “Never let the women down.” She has also been quoted as proclaiming: “If anything can save the world, women can.” Some have also argued that her presidency contributed to more pro-women and family-friendly legislation. Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index for 11 years straight.

This year not only marks the 40th anniversary of the start of her Icelandic presidency, she also turned 90 in April. Congratulations, Vigdís!

Library of Congress Collection Holdings

The Library of Congress Catalog holds several items that relate to Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and her presidency, including a rare collection item that bears Finnbogadóttir’s signature. She signed the Festschrift Yrkja: afmælisrit til Vigdísar Finnbogadóttur in 1994 when she visited the Library of Congress, as part of a visit to the United States. I am sad to say that this event took place well before I joined the library.

 

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