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Feminist politics and the Women's Alliance of Iceland

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Feminist politics and the Women's Alliance of Iceland
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Ellis, Jenny Lynn
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vii, 83 leaves : ; 29 cm

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Women -- Political activity -- Iceland ( lcsh )
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Iceland ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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Includes bibliographical references.
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Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, Political Science.
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Department of Political Science
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by Jenny Lynn Ellis.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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ocm29195320
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Full Text
FEMINIST POLITICS AND THE
WOMEN'S ALLIANCE OF ICELAND
by
Jenny Lynn Ellis
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1990
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Political Science
1993


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Jenny Lynn Ellis
has been approved for the
Department of
Political Science
by
Michael Cummings


Ellis, Jenny Lynn (M.A., Political Science)
Feminist Politics and the Women's Alliance of Iceland
Thesis directed by Professor Jana M. Everett
ABSTRACT
This thesis examines the historical background, political
impact, and theoretical implications of the Women's Alliance of
Iceland (Kvennalistinn), relying upon interpretive field research as
well as prior case studies and theoretical models. Twenty interviews
were conducted in Iceland in the fall of 1992 with women involved in
this political party; these conversations enrich and expand upon the
very scanty written material available on Kvennalistinn. After
examining the history and political system of Iceland, I review the
three phases of women's movements there, explaining the links between
earlier movements and Kvennalistinn's emergence and philosophy. This
analysis reveals many contradictions both in Icelandic women's
overall political experience and in the philosophy and operations of
Kvennalistinn. The convergence of Kvennalistinn's experience with
existing theories of women's political organizing proves similarly
paradoxical. Rather than fitting neatly into any existing
theoretical category, Kvennalistinn is found to have developed its
own unique style of feminism, one which both relies upon and
iii


challenges women's traditional roles in Icelandic society.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's
thesis. I recommend its publication.
Signed
Jana M. Everett
iv


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Funding for my field research was provided by the American-
Scandinavian Foundation. Additional support was given by the
Research/Creative Activities Office, the College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences, the Office of Academic Affairs, and the Department of
International Education at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Special thanks also go to Professor Joel Edelstein for his
encouragement of the project and advocacy on my behalf.
To the many women at Kvennalistinn, especially Porunn
Sveinbjarnardottir, who provided answers to a steady stream of
logistical and historical questions and offered their experience and
encouragement, I am deeply grateful. Finally, it is to the women I
interviewed, both inside and outside Kvennalistinn, that I owe my
deepest debt. The stories and insights they shared, along with warm
hospitality and innumerable cups of coffee, made this project
worthwhile.
v


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION AND REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE ................ 1
Introduction ............................................ 1
Review of the Literature ................................ 5
Implications for Kvennalistinn ...................... 16
Women in Scandinavian Politics........................17
Methodology..............................................21
Arrangement of the Thesis................................24
2. ICELANDIC WOMEN AND POLITICS ............................ 26
Political History of Iceland.............................27
Women in Scandinavia.....................................4l
Icelandic Women's Movements ............................ 44
Suffrage..............................................44
The Redstockings......................................47
The Women's Alliance ................................ 50
Impact on Icelandic Poltics.........................57
Working Methods and Organization .................. 58
Conclusion...............................................64
3. FEMINIST POLITICS AND THE WOMENS ALLIANCE OF ICELAND .65
Theoretical Context .................................... 65
vi


Women's Alliance Philosophy ............................ 67
Impact...................................................76
Conclusion...............................................79
REFERENCES......................................................81
vii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION AND REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Introduction
Modern feminists have struggled for decades to transform
masculinist theories of political action into models more useful to
women as they attempt to alter the policy landscape. As many women
in the field of political science have discovered, masculine bias is
reflected not only in the disproportionate number of male elected
representatives, but also in research questions and theoretical
frames of reference that exclude women's experiences in politics.
Despite formidable obstacles, astute theorists and dedicated grass-
roots activists have entered the exclusionary domain of traditional
political science and have begun to shift politics and its study onto
broader and more inclusive ground. In the process, women have
discovered that not only can academic disciplines yield ground to
challenging new ways of thinking, but also through concentrated
effortboth in small groups and in mass movementseven rigidly
patriarchal political systems will concede policies conducive to
greater gender equality.
1


Women's experiences in organizing their communities and in
transforming grass-roots movements into effective political
representation have yielded rich insights into the dynamics of social
change and the often stubborn resistance of institutional power
structures to such efforts. From Norway to Australia and from Chile
to India, many diverse models of feminist political action have begun
to emerge that reflect broad understandings of women's oppression as
well as practical strategies for gaining political leverage. This
study focusses on the experiences of Icelandic women, whose efforts
in translating local-level organization into political action have
reaped substantial rewards while simultaneously highlighting feminist
groups' difficulties with political participation.
Founded in March 1983. the Icelandic Women's Alliance, or
"Kvennalistinn," has enjoyed dramatic electoral success in a short
period of time. Kvennalistinn has held seats in Parliament for ten
years, and in only a a decade since their first representatives were
seated, the proportion of women serving in Parliament has increased
from five percent to twenty-three percent (Kvennalistinn, 1991)* As
part of a larger women's movement, Kvennalistinn has carefully
negotiated the often conflicting demands of maintaining connection to
mass membership and building political influence. Their experience
in building a viable women's political party raises four important
2


research questions. First, what historical factors contributed to
the emergence of this unique group? The development of Iceland's
political systemand women's historical place within that system
provide an important context for understanding the modern women's
political party. Moreover, an examination of the past philosophies
and tactics of Icelandic women's movements must precede any
evaluation of the ideology of Kvennalistinn.
Second, what impact has this non-traditional group had on the
existing political institutions in Iceland, and how has the
government responded to Kvennalstinn's policy initiatives? As
alternative groups prove their appeal through electoral success,
parts of their philosophies are often embraced by entrenched parties,
leaving new parties with less appeal to voters after their novelty
has waned. Therefore, it is important to understand what
Kvennalistinn has done to promote women in government and to
represent women's interests in the legislature.
Third, how well do Kvennalistinn's policy agenda and
organizational mechanics match widely shared definitions of a
"feminist" movement? As this group moved from energetic
demonstrations and mass meetings into the realm of national political
parties, changes in mechanics and philosophy may well have shifted
their philosophy from a structure-challenging feminist perspective to
3


a less controversial "pro-woman" posture. Furthermore,
Kvennalistinn's early emphasis on egalitarianism, grass-roots
involvement, and rotation of leadership may similarly have given way
to structures more conforming to those of other parties with which it
must compete.
And finally, how do the challenges faced by the Icelandic
women's movement support and/or challenge some existing concepts of
effective feminist political change? With the wide diversity of
women's movements around the globe, an attempt to place Kvennalistinn
in the context of emerging theories of women in politics can shed
important light on the feasibility of transforming grass-roots
activism into effective institutional politics. The ways in which
Kvennalistinn has altered the political landscape in Iceland, and in
turn been affected as an organization by engaging in the political
process, will follow or diverge from other cases of feminist
involvement in national politics analyzed by feminist scholars.
Thus, the significance of this project lies both in gaining
more detailed knowledge of the Icelandic women's political
experiencesincluding an understanding of how Kvennalistinn has
affected Icelandic politics and an update on their current
activitiesand in understanding more broadly the challenges faced by
"outsider" women's organizations gaining access to "insider"
4


political power. By situating the experiences of the Icelandic
women's movement in relation to theories of effective feminist
change, I hope to find relevant frameworks of thought as well as
practical lessons for women wishing to enterand to transformthe
political process.
As a second generation Icelandic-American, I also have a great
deal of personal interest in this subject. Although born and raised
in the United States, I was always very aware of the different
society and politics enjoyed by Icelanders. In addition to
occasional visits to Iceland and regular contact with Icelandic
visitors, I gained a rudimentary understanding of the Icelandic
language. This project is an extension of my bi-cultural background,
allowing me to apply my academic understanding of feminism and
politics to a country that has always remained in my peripheral
vision.
Review of the Literature
In order to follow the development of feminist theory in this
arena, I focus in this section on broad literature of women in
politics and on relevant theoretical analyses. The rapidly changing
perspectives on women in politics are examined, and I briefly discuss
how prior studies of women in Scandinavian politics fit into this
5


framework. Several excellent writers have built a strong theoretical
base from which to examine the effectiveness of feminist politics.
This appraisal of recent scholarship centers on the varied
definitions of feminism, the effect upon strong women's movements of
their decision to enter formal politics, and the impact such
movements have had on established government institutions.
Randall's Women and Politics: An International Perspective
(second edition, 1987) provides a useful starting point for surveying
the evolving literature on women in politics. In part because the
first edition of Randall's volume was published in .1982, the research
reviewed in Women and Politics reflects both early criticisms of
standard political science perspectives on women and more recent
analyses of the impact of gender on political practice. Moreover,
because political science has been so heavily dominated by male
academics and masculinist ideologies, argues the author, women must
inject their voices and perspectives into the field, rather than
simply reject as useless the accumulation of knowledge that has
preceded their entry.
Randall begins her review of the scholarship about women's
political participation by examining the history of women in politics
and the changing relationship between political science and feminism.
Women's presence as subjects and authors in research during the early
6


post World War II years ranged from virtual invisibility to very
superficial and often sexist studies, which generalized about female
political activity based exclusively on their traditional roles as
wife and mother. Somewhat more research attention was given to women
in politics after the resurgence of feminist activism in the 1960's,
with ground-breaking studies of women's political behavior, their
slow entry into the upper levels of government institutions, and the
possibilities for feminist policy-making.
Within this discussion, Randall offers a glimpse at the
potential complexity of feminism's varied definitions. For instance,
she discusses several categories of feminist thought, including
Marxist/socialist, Radical, and Reform/Liberal, all of which view the
sources of women's oppressionand therefore the best solutions
quite differently. Elaborating upon reform-minded thinking, Randall
warns against the "pro-woman'' position, "in which the absence of a
revolutionary commitment can produce the rather conservative argument
that women bring special 'maternal qualities' of caring and sympathy
to public life. . ." (9). Rather than selecting one clear
definition of feminism, Randall touches upon its many "meanings,"
relying upon the importance of context to discuss feminism in its
"widest, historic" sense (9). In this way, the author rejects claims
made by various contingents of feminist women, from "radicalesbians"
7


to "pro-woman radical feminists" of an exclusive and ideologically
"correct" definition of feminism (9). Without choosing one such
perspective over another, Randall explains the thinking behind each
feminist framework, and briefly explores the ways in which the
different perspectives build upon and often conflict with one
another.
Randall goes on to examine women's stark under-representation
in positions of formal political leadership. Again, her discussion
is hampered by a shortage of data on the subject extending well into
the 1980's. Recent studies do, however, show that contributing
causes of women's low representation in national decision-making
bodies include their different life situations (especially
motherhood), sex segregation in the professions most compatible with
public service, and the deterrent effects of continued male
domination of most national legislatures (130). When elite political
offices are gained, a major challenge to women's effectiveness
remains the "male hostility directed specifically, if half-
consciously at them as intruders" (92). Women fare best gaining
power in political elites on the local level, and on the national
level in systems employing party lists and proportional
representation such as exist in Sweden and Norway, where in 1986
women held 35# and 28# percent respectively of seats in the national
8


legislatures (98-99)- Even under these conditions, Randall suggests
that feminist politicians must forge strong alliances with the Left
in order to have the strongest impact (321).
Policies toward women reflect the lack of representation found
in the vast majority of countries. Most glaringly in the years prior
to Second Wave feminism, governments generally increased women's
dependence on men, both directlythrough laws restricting their
rights and activitiesand indirectlyby viewing women as part of
the private sphere of women and the family and therefore out of the
realm of legislative purview. Even as restrictive laws lessened in
the twentieth century, Randall cites evidence of the continued
relegation of issues of vital concern to women as "administrative,
social, or cultural" and therefore out of the mainstream of
government institutions (92). Nevertheless, according to the
information reviewed by Randall, the women's movement of the 1960's
and 1970's has strongly influenced public policy. Despite tremendous
obstacles, Randall argues that "it has brought to the fore and
redefined issues previously neglected, helped to secure major changes
in official policy and ensured that these are at least partially
implemented" (262). Again, Scandinavia (and Sweden in particular)
provides the most progressive models of policies toward women.
Finally, Women and Politics is valuable for its important
9


discussion of women's organizations. In a section entitled "The
Tyranny of Structurelessness," Randall notes the difficulties
experienced by women's groups as they implement ideals of decentered,
non-hierarchical, grass-roots organizing, only to develop elite
cliques and informal power struggles of their own. However, Randall
cites Jo Freeman's (1975) conclusion that non-structured styles of
organizing have greater chances of success in small, homogeneous, and
highly focussed groups (Randall, 255)
The primary weakness of Randall's volume results from the
methodology and research perspective chosen by the author. Women and
Politics assiduously avoids making a structural or revolutionary
critique. For instance, in urging an alliance between feminism and
political science, the author does not question the divisiveness and
elitism inherent in the system of strictly divided academic fields,
fields which have for decades both reflected and supported race,
class, and gender hierarchies. Moreover, Randall avoids using
interpretive techniques to understand what it means to women to be
largely excluded from the study of policies and institutions that
have such a heavy impact on their lives. Within her chosen
framework, however, Randall's discussion offers a clear-sighted
overview of the conflicts and challenges facing women in politics.
Several other researchers have provided relevant international
10


surveys of women's political activities. In her discussion of women
in European political institutions, Lovenduski (1986) differs from
Randall by focusing less upon the United States and by providing more
comprehensive historical information on the countries examined. The
author discusses the progress women have made in Europefrom
organizing for suffrage to challenging corporate power structures
but concludes that "what is now required is the transformation of
the remaining institutions into a structure capable of accommodating
both sexes" (296). Such a call for structural transformation further
distinguishes Lovenduski's work from Randall's earlier and less
critical survey.
Lovenduski provides a broad definition of feminism as "efforts
to ameliorate the condition of women through publicly organized
activity to achieve reforms of the political, economic and social
institutions which discriminated against women" (7). Like Randall's,
this definition is broad and historical, although Lovenduski focusses
a great deal more on feminism as an activity, rather than simply as a
set of ideas. Following this principle, the author provides in-depth
histories of the First and Second Waves of feminism in Europe, using
case-studies of various countries for which information is available.
Lovenduski also provides much helpful information on the impact
of women on political institutions. Although she cites some
11


"contradictory implications" of Second Wave feminism for women in
politics, the overall impact of feminist activity has been to
mobilize womens political energy. At the same time, "the movement's
anti-hierarchical ethos and the separatism advocated by some
feminists made many women extremely suspicious of highly structured,
male-dominated political institutions" (115). Such legitimate
suspicions have not, however, prevented women from claiming an
increasingly large (if still unequal) share of political influence,
nor from reaping the benefits of legal reforms.
Chafetz and Dworkin (1986) provide both empirical surveys of
women's movements in over thirty countries (including two paragraphs
on Iceland's suffrage movement) and a critical theoretical framework
to explain the emergence of such movements. After analyzing a wide
range of women's movements on all five continents, the authors
conclude that "the economic structure of a nation is the root
explanation of both the size and ideological scope of women's
movements" (221). In defining feminism, Chafetz and Dworkin make a
useful distinction between "ameliorative" women's movementswith
limited ideological scope and short-term goalsand the less numerous
and more recent feminist movementsthose that "challenge the full
range of social institutions and definitions" (2).
Employing a traditional political behavior methodology, De Vaus
12


and McAllister (1989) offer a review of women's political alignment
in eleven countries. Women's greater conservatism as compared to
men's is found to be less than previously thought, and most likely
results from differences in work force participation and religiosity.
The contrast in political alignment largely disappears when these
factors are eliminated through statistical analysis, leaving women as
a group actually more liberal in seven out of the eleven countries
studied. The authors conclude in support of Randall, that "gender
differences in political alignment have been exaggerated, over-
generalized, been seen as relatively fixed, and assumed to always
show that women are more conservative" (258). In fact, "the pattern
for females to be more rightwing than males is found only in
particular types of countries and where it is found it is largely
attributable to situational and structural factors, which are both
changeable and changing." (258) Without explicitly embracing a
critical feminist methodology or defining feminism, this piece of
research nevertheless seriously questions prior assumptions about
women's political beliefs and behaviors.
A very useful case study and theoretical framework is offered
by Alvarez in Engendering Democracy in Brazil (1990)* This study
seeks to explain the strength of Brazil's women's movement before and
during that country's transition from authoritarian military regime
13


to more democratic political institutions. In additionand more
relevant to Iceland's experienceAlvarez looks closely at the
factors leading to mass mobilization of Brazilian women, the ways in
which politically active women's groups affected political
institutions, and how these groups were in turn affected by the
process of engaging in politics. In providing a theoretical
backdrop for her study, Alvarez contributes substantially to a more
complete definition of feminism. Drawing upon Molyneux's (1986)
analysis of women's political mobilization, Alvarez distinguishes
between two types of women's organizations: "feminine" groups that
attempt to improve women's living conditions within the existing
sexual division of labor, and "feminist" groups with "strategic"
aims of transforming the sexual division of labor (25). In other
words, women's "gender-related" concerns (such as child-care
provision) differ from "gender-specific" goals (such as eliminating
the sexual division of labor), and women's organizations tend to
choose one perspective over the other. Feminist groups, then, "seek
to transform the roles society assigns to women, challenge existing
gender power arrangements, and claim women's rights to personal
autonomy and equality" (24).
Alvarez goes on to describe the impact Brazil's women's
movements had upon the country's transition to democratic rule.
14


With the re-introduction of multiparty democracy, newly mobilized
women were courted by various groups promising attention to
previously ignored womens issues. As political parties solidified
their new bases of support, however, "female constituencies ceased to
be perceived as prized electoral currency," and a corresponding lack
of attention to gender interests followed {111). According to
Alvarez, such manipulation is common to the "mixed blessing" of
women's entry into formal Latin American politics. Thus, Brazilian
women benefitted from their organizational efforts through important
policy changes and a dramatic increases in the attention paid to them
by those holding or aspiring to political power; however, their value
to the country's governing institutions quickly waned as the
political terrain shifted once again, leaving women with only tenuous
access to permanent political influence and the threat of rapidly
eroding social service benefits. Moreover, in the process of
engaging in national politics, the united and mass-based Brazilian
women's movement of the early 1980's fractured as the "radical
socialist-feminism was dispersed or absorbed by political society and
the State" (228-29). This "dispersal" of feminist activity, while
indicating a loss of the "radical core" of the movement, also
reflects a shift toward "life-style or cultural feminism," a shift
that, according to Alvarez, may weaken the future political influence
15


of women in Brazil (229)
Implications for Kvennalistinn
Despite the important differences between Brazil's large and
diverse women's movement and Iceland's relatively small and
homogenous political party, the experiences of women in Brazilalong
with the other case studies and theoretical discussions reviewed
greatly enhances our understanding of Kvennalistinn's experiences.
Although women face a wide variety of circumstances upon their entry
into the political fray, they often experience shared frustrations in
their attempts to transform political institutions. Too often, gains
in public policies toward women have come too slowly and at too high
a price for women's organizations as they struggle to maintain
unified momentum in the face of patriarchal institutions unresponsive
to decentered, non-hierarchical movements. Such has been the case in
Iceland and Brazil, while women in Europe and the United States have
also struggled with the contradictory demands of mass movements and
institutional politics.
The above literature, based as it is on widely disparate
countries and theoretical perspectives, has also yielded parallel
distinctions between types of women's organizations. "Feminist"
efforts toward structural social and political change have been
16


distinguished by several authors from "pro-woman," "ameliorative,"
and "feminine" oriented groups whose goals are more limited in scope.
These distinctions and the conflicts faced by women's organizations
engaged in political activity will help to answer important questions
about Kvennalistinn's struggle for principled political action. I
turn now to research more specific to the Icelandic experience.
Women in Scandinavian Politics
Haavio-Mannila (and others 1985) offers a critical perspective
on the position of Scandinavian women in Unfinished Democracy: Women
in Nordic Politics. This volume addresses Nordic countries as a
whole, contrasting different methods used by women to challenge the
"firmly rooted structures" of patriarchal politics. While strategies
and effectiveness vary widely throughout Scandinavia, the authors
assert that
The relevant question is not whether women in politics
have made any difference at all to the substance and form
of politics, because they have to a greater or lesser
extent. The pertinent question is under which conditions
can women in politics create social change by means of
political action. One of the answers is that a certain
"critical number" of women politicians is required before
a substantial difference is made. In addition, women
politicians who wish to pursue women's policies must be
backed up by strong women's organizations and by a
critical, radical and visionary women's movement which
stands outside the system. (166, emphases in original)
17


Only when enough women can pressure the system from within, and in
turn be pressured by a "radical and visionary" movement from without,
can feminist politicians expect to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Also making use of critical social science methodologies,
Dahlerup (1986) examines the "new women's movement" in a number of
countries, employing feminist theory to inform.her introductory
comments. Discussing the strengths for second-wave women's movements
of remaining outside of formal power networks, Dahlrup remarks that
"in a way, all social movements are by definition outside the system:
they are marginal, and are neither part of routine politics nor part
of the dominant ideology" (13)- Such marginality serves, in fact, to
strengthen women's collective efforts to increase awareness of
feminist issues and to learn "new ways of doing politics" (14).
Andren's (1964) outline of the history and politics of the five
Nordic countries includes chapters on each country as well as
comparative discussions, but largely ignores women's political
experiences and participation rates. Other sources of general
information on Icelandic history and society include Scherman (1976),
Magnusson (1977). and Tomasson (1980). Allardt (1981) discusses the
Scandinavian democracies as a group and includes in his edition a
chapter discussing women's political status. Authored by Haavio-
Mannila, this chapter concludes that in terms of social and economic
18


position, "the Nordic women score high," although "there is still a
lot to be done" (586).
Three academic articles discuss the emergence and activities of
the Women's Alliance in Iceland. Styrskarsdottir (1986) offers a
historical review of Kvennalistirin's emergence on the political
scene, placing the new movement in the context of the Icelandic
political system and discussing women's movements in Iceland since
the 1970's. Although this article briefly contrasts the 1920's
suffrage movement with the 1980's Women's Alliance, broader issues of
feminist theory are not addressed. Styrskarsdottir concludes that
Kvennalistinn's success has pressured existing political parties to
address more fully women's issues, and that the group can expect
continued electoral success.
Dominelli and Jonsdottir (1988) use a combination of
methodologies to explore the Icelandic women's movement. Like
Styrskarsdottir, these authors present a chronology of the 1980's
women's movement, but unlike the earlier writer, they do not link
these activities to the suffrage movement or the 1920's women's
lists. Dominelli and Jonsdottir do, however, enrich their discussion
with interpretive discussions of the motivations and meanings of
participation for the women involved in the organization. In sharp
contrast to other writers on the subject, Dominelli and Jonsdottir
19


describe Kvennalistinn as a "breakaway faction" of Kvennaframbothid
(translated as "Women Candidates"), part of a more broadly based
women's group. This distinction may result in part from the more
theoretical basis for this article, which explores in depth the
difficulties of maintaining feminist principles while participating
in mainstream politics. Dominelli and Jonsdottir thus describe the
eventual decline of Kvennaframbothid as an autonomous group, viewing
their failure as a result of "ideological rifts" and philosophical
ambiguities. While they are the only authors in the surveyed
literature to describe Kvennaframbothid as separate from
Kvennalistinn, their perception of divisiveness indicates important
dynamics within the Women's Alliance that I will examine more
closely.
A more overtly positivist methodology is employed by
Kristmundsdottir (1989) in her discussion of the "logical and
chronological" phases of women's rights activities in Iceland. This
historical comparison of the early suffrage movement, the later
women's liberation (or "Redstocking") movement, and current Women's
Alliance activities finds shifting positions on the value of women's
"cultural characteristics" and corresponding differences in women's
criticisms of the existing male authority system. Kristmundsdottir
does not mention Kvennaframbothid as a separate organization, but
20


moves directly from her discussion of the 1970's Redstocking movement
to the 1980's women's slates of candidates. Her discussion of the
theoretical underpinnings of the current Kvennalistinn policy
statements complements the philosophical discussion offered by
Dominelli and Jonsdottir, and together with Styrskarsdottir the three
articles offer a solid starting ground for study of the Icelandic
women's movement. Nevertheless, no recent research exists to more
completely analyze the current developments in Kvennalistinn and the
theoretical implications thereof.
Methodology
This thesis investigates the Icelandic Women's Alliance in the
context of contemporary feminist political change. In addition to
the sources discussed above, I rely upon field research conducted in
Iceland in the fall of 1992. Over a period of six weeks, I conducted
twenty largely unstructured interviews with women about their
experiences with Kvennalistinn. The interviews were conducted in
English, lasted forty-five to ninety minutes, and were tape-recorded.
Information shared by interviewees on their experiences with the
Women's Alliance serves to enrich the somewhat scanty information on
the history of the organization, as well as to shed additional light
on very important organizational dynamics.
21


Because of the qualitative nature of this project, my thesis
has evolved as I have learned more about the Women's Alliance. My
original hypotheses, however, can be divided into macro- and micro-
levels of analysis. First, I theorized about the ways in which this
group has affected Icelandic politics, which, until the emergence of
Kvennalistinn, operated as a near-exclusive male system. I expected
to see a correlation between the attention paid by the dominant
parties to issues important to women, as well as the number of women
put forward as candidates, and the slight electoral loss of the
Women's Alliance in the most recent elections. In other words, I
anticipated that as the Women's Alliance had gathered popular
support, the existing parties were able to coopt some of their most
popular issues, leaving the challenger party with fewer original
issues with which to attract new support.
On the individual level, I hypothesized that there would be a
dilution of the original non-hierarchical, grass-roots ideals so
important to the early movement, and a corresponding decrease in
satisfaction on the part of women active with the group during its
foray into electoral politics. Thus, my open-ended interview
questions focussed on women's perceptions of the party's connection
to grass-roots membership, how well respondents felt their interests
were being represented in Parliament, and the degree to which
22


interviewees agreed or disagreed with the overall direction of the
organization. In addition, I asked participants about the openness
of decision-making processes, their own and the party's philosophical
priorities, and changes they had observed over the years as
Kvennalistinn continued to hold seats in parliament.
My sample of interviewees was drawn purposively, rather than
using a random sample of the membership list from the organization.
This method allowed me to include both "rank and file" members as
well as women who have held, or who now hold, government offices on
behalf of the party. In addition, purposive sampling allowed me to
ensure that original members of Kvennaframbothid were included in
order to gain a clearer understanding of the loss of organizational
cohesion (described by Dominelli and Jonsdottir) at the time of the
"split" between the two groups. The final group of participants
included three former members of Kvennaframbothid who are not
currently involved with Kvennalistinn. The rest of the sample
consisted of five current or former members of parliament, seven
"members" of Kvennalistinn who attended meetings semi-regularly, and
two women who have worked in Kvennalistinn1s office. In addition, I
spoke to two women who support the party but have not become involved
beyond voting for Kvennalistinn, one Kvennalistinn City Council
representative, and one female member of the Reykjavik City Council
23


from a competing left-wing party. Potential drawbacks of purposive
sampling, including the lack of randomness that prevents wide
generalizability, are offset by the small size of the overall group.
My goal in conducting the interviews was not to compile statistics on
characteristics of Kvennalistinn's membership, but to understand the
dynamics of this group and ways they may have changed as a result of
political involvement.
Ethical issues, although not obvious or large in scope, do
exist for this project. First and foremost, I ensure the
confidentiality of interviews by omitting participants' names and
altering, when necessary, their identifying circumstances. Following
the guidelines of the Human Subjects Research Committee of the
University of Colorado, I required interviewees to sign a short
informed consent form that included a description of my project,
notification that interview responses will be kept strictly
confidential, and instructions on how to reach me if participants
wish to receive a final copy of the project. Especially in a small
group such as Kvennalistinn, disguising names and details of women's
role in the organization helps to guarantee that no criticism of the
group will result in personal grudges or damage to political careers.
24


Arrangement of the Thesis
Before presenting the results of my field research in greater
detail, I will offer background information in the second chapter
about Iceland's political history and current political system,
focussing on women's often paradoxical status in Icelandic politics
through the ages. In this context, I discuss the history of
Kvennalistinn based both on written materials and on the interpretive
comments of interview participants. An update on the current
activities and organizational challenges facing the Women's Alliance-
-again highlighting the conflicting demands placed upon the political
partyconcludes Chapter 2.
The final chapter analyzes Kvennalistinn's philosophyas
presented in written materials and as described by women with whom I
spokewithin the context of existing theoretical models. Addressing
once again the difficult question of what constitutes feminist and
non-feminist political activity, I argue that thanks in large part to
the unique history of the Icelandic women's movement, Kvennalistinn
does not fit neatly into either camp, but instead can be used as a
standpoint from which to view more clearly earlier definitions of
feminism. The convergenceas well as divergenceof the experiences
of the Icelandic Women's Alliance with existing case studies and
theoretical models thus serves to illuminate the persistent
25


challenges and perennial puzzles of women's political practice.
CHAPTER 2
ICELANDIC WOMEN AND POLITICS
This chapter examines the history of Icelandic women in
politics from the island's first government to the modern Women's
Alliance. This overview of Iceland's political history pays special
attention to the many contradictions faced by women in their
political status and actions. In order to understand more completely
the context of twentieth-century Icelandic women's movements, and to
appreciate more fully the uniqueness of Kvennalistinn, I also briefly
discuss the general position of women in Scandinavia. Next, I draw
upon my conversations with women in Iceland to supplement written
accounts of Kvennalistinn's decade of political activity and the
impact the party has had upon Icelandic politics. The chapter
concludes with a discussion of the conflicts faced by the Women's
26


27
Alliance as they attempt to integrate grass-roots styles of
organization with the demands of political-party activities.
Political History of Iceland
Nestled just south of the Arctic circle and warmed by the Gulf
Stream, Iceland earned its misleadingly chilly name from ice floes
sighted in a northern bay by Flokki, one of the first Norwegian
explorers of the island. This sparsely forested, green land, which
covers deceptively quiet volcanoes and hot springs, was settled
between 87O and 930 A.D. Fleeing King Harald's new consolidation of
power and seeking the freedom possible in a new and bountiful colony,
Norwegian noblemen and their families flocked to this northern
outpost. Iceland's 20,000 new arrivals were for the most part well-
off and intent upon avoiding the chaos and despotism that had sent
them from their homeland (Scherman 1976, 78).
The settlers designed a society that reflected their desire for
freedom and equality, and the government they established preserved
the dispersed system of power used in Norway prior to the
establishment of a consolidated monarchy. Thus, in 930, Iceland's
thirty-nine "godar," or chieftains, established the world's first
parliament, which met annually at Thingvellir. Iceland's assembly of
free men (slavery was permitted until the year 1000), known as the


Althing, elected a "law speaker"responsible for reciting the law
and overseeing the Althing every third year. Also during the
meeting of the Althing, courts of law heard cases that had arisen
during the past year. Richard Tomasson (1980)has closely analyzed
the relationship between the "new society" of Iceland and its roots
in Norway's Germanic culture:
The Icelandic Commonwealth represented the fullest
development of the Scandinavian variant of the old
Germanic polity. At a time when Norway was beginning its
centuries-long development into a Christian and national
stateor at least a state under one kingIceland
reasserted the fundamental elements of the diffuse
traditional polity and expanded them in ways unknown
elsewhere. (15)
While the system was far from perfect, Iceland's republican
government embodied egalitarian principles and legislative processes
unknown at the time in Europe, where medieval feudalism kept an iron
grip on society.
Women's position in Icelandic society during this time was
marked both by their secondary importance to the social, religious,
and legal practices of the day, and by their necessary strength and
independence during the long and frequent absences of their husbands.
For instance, under the laws during this Commonwealth Period, men
convicted of heinous crimes were beheaded, but "women, not considered
worthy of death by the sword, were drowned in a deep pool" (Scherman
28


1976, 110). Tomasson remarks, on the other hand, upon "the high
status of women and the independence accorded them" during the pre-
Christian age (106). Such "high status" stands in sharp contrast to
womens position in Europe {and to a lesser degree in other regions
of Scandinavia) where restrictive marriage and property laws severely
curtailed their freedom (Tomasson 1980, 106). Nevertheless, the
reality of women's heavy responsibilities in agricultural production
as well as in child rearing and domestic management made their
burdens especially heavy in a society in which women "counted for
little" (Scherman 1976, 119)* An evaluation of the relative status
of Icelandic women during this period is thus marked by paradox:
their substantial freedom in marriage and commerce is overshadowed by
their disproportionately heavy workload and by their exclusion from
the formal power structures of the day.
Nevertheless, images of independent women abound in the
folklore of Commonwealth Iceland. Indeed, Iceland's tradition of
literary excellence began during this period, also known as the Saga
Age. These popular oral histories, with their anonymous origin and
frequent embellishments of historical fact, paint a vivid picture of
family feuding, persistent hauntings, and brutal, yet noble outlaws
of tenth-century Iceland. During the thirteenth century, as the
Sagas were being put in written form, wealth and power in Icelandic
29


society became more concentrated, and increasingly bloody feuding led
the remaining godar to turn to the Norwegian crown for unified peace.
Thus began over six hundred years of foreign rule, which had its
harshest impact under Denmark after 1380, when Icelandic commerce and
culture suffered enormous setbacks (Tomasson 1980, 20). The end of
Iceland's Commonwealth heralded the darkest period of the nation's
history, as colonial status compounded the devastation of "natural
catastrophes, recurring epidemics, frequent famines, widespread
undernourishment and starvation, and general physical and spiritual
exhaustion" to cause a steady decline in Icelandic civilization that
continued well into the nineteenth century (Magnusson 1977. 101). A
large portion of the carefully transcribed Sagas were lost forever
during these "dark ages"; however, the manuscripts that survived
would later fuel a passionate pride in Iceland's "Golden Age."
The "millennium of misery" for the Icelanders came to a gradual
close after Denmark ended a disastrous 185-year trade monopoly in
1787 (Tomasson, 19). Increased international commerce combined with
rekindled pride in Iceland's literary heritage to create a
renaissance in Icelandic society. Despite continuing hardships, for
example, universal literacy was achieved by 1800 (Tomasson, 19). A
resurgence in Icelandic nationalism was also a natural result of both
increasing prosperity and the influence of the American and French
30


Revolutions (Magnusson, 127). In 1843, having been abolished by the
King of Denmark forty years earlier, the Althing began to meet once
again, if only to advise the Danish government. The independence
movement that followed was non-violent, using petitions and political
pressure to wrest gradual concessions from the Danish monarch.
Bjornsdottir (1989) discusses the important symbolic role women
played in the role for independence. Icelanders shared a "national
vision" of the Woman of the Mountain (Fjallkonan), a maternal figure
who reflected many diverse values:
She was at the same time outside culture and part of
nature, an almost fairy-like being who belonged to the
mountains, the most remote parts of nature. But she was
also part of culture, civilized, tender, good-hearted,
firm and determined, encouraging patriotism, courage,
peace, and unity. (107)
Part of rugged nature and refined culture, both protective mother and
mysterious fairy, the Woman of the Mountain embodied the conflictual
expectations of late nineteenth-century Icelandic women, respected
for their independence in days gone by, yet formally excluded from
real power in society. Simultaneously, her pure and tender visage
provides a romantic link to Iceland's Golden Age, a time, of course,
when women lived paradoxically independent lives in a very male-
centered culture. With the nostalgic vision of the Woman of the
Mountain urging them forward, the Icelanders pushed ahead in their
31


passionate drive for full independence, and were granted complete
home rule by the Danes in 1918.
Ties between the two countries were cut when Nazi Germany
invaded Denmark, granting Iceland ,!de facto" autonomy in 19*10. When
Iceland officially declared its full independence in 1944, a new
constitution was approved by the Althing and ratified by a national
plebiscite. Elected every four years with no limit to number of
terms, the President supervises negotiations when new national
governments are formed and holds veto power over laws passed by the
Althing. This veto power has never been used, however, and the role
of Iceland's president is closer to that of ceremonial head of state,
with political power held instead by the Prime Minister. Members of
parliament originally numbered fifty-two, serving as a pool from
which government ministers are appointed. When proportional
representation was incorporated into the constitution in 1959. the
number of representatives in the national legislature was increased
to 60. Effective in the 1983 election, the number increased to 63,
and the voting age went from 20 to 18. Icelanders established a two-
tiered judiciary; district and town judges, rather than juries,
decide cases on the local level, while the five-member Supreme Court
hears appeals and decides constitutional questions. With no standing
army and only a small police force, the new republic's constitution
32


reasserts an earlier commitment to international neutrality.
As the northern island emerged once again as a sovereign state,
a political culture developed that closely reflected the nation's
unique development. According to Tomasson (1980), "three factors
stand out as having shaped Iceland's politics and political party
system: the country's size, the homogeneity of its population, and
its isolation" (38). Lacking rigid ethnic, race, or class divisions,
Icelandic politics thus came to rely heavily upon charismatic
individualsoften from a limited number of prominent families
rather than on firm ideological stands. Icelandic political culture
is also marked by a strong egalitarian ethic, high political
awareness and participation levels, a widespread faith in social
welfare, and shared national pride, bordering on ethnocentrism
(Tomasson, 39_^0). Such an atmosphere, and the political
institutions it fostered, would shape the emergence and popularity of
Iceland's Woman's Alliance in the 1980's.
The political parties with which Kvennalistinn now competes
share a lengthy history. Icelandic political parties developed
during the move for independence as the Home Rule party competed with
the Independence party over the appropriate role of Denmark in
Iceland's affairs. These two groups developed into a conservative
(Home Rule) party and a liberal (Independence) party, but by 1929
33


they had united under the name of the latter group. The Independence
party thus became the dominant party in Iceland, and continues to be
so even today (Griffiths 1969. 103-4). In 1916, the Progressive
party was formed with support from Iceland's agrarian community,
while a fledgling labor party, the Social Democrats, also began to
compete for representation in the Althing. The 1920's saw a
solidification of support for the developing parties based primarily
on economic interests (Kristmundsdottir 1989. 80). By 1938, the
Socialist party had also entered the political scene, combining the
energies of more radical Social Democrat defectors and the Soviet-
inspired Icelandic communists. When the Socialists disbanded in
1970, the People's Alliance adopted an independent and democratic
philosophy and became the sole communist party in Iceland.
The role of political parties in determining political
representation in Iceland is a strong one. At elections, each party
offers a list of candidates to the voters, and the number of votes
cast for each party determines the number of candidates seated from
the list. This party list system guarantees the importance of strong
coalitions within parties to determine which candidates are placed
near the tops of the lists, and effectively excludes new candidates
who lack strong backing by one of the parties (Hardarson and
Kristinsson 1987, 223). Due largely to the reluctance of traditional
34


political parties to place women prominently on their lists of
candidates, between 1922 and 1983 the number of women elected to the
Althing totalled only twelve, with never more than three women
serving in Parliament at the same time (Kvennalistinn, 1991)-
As Iceland's national government adjusted to its new
independence, the Republic was abruptly shaken out of its centuries-
long isolation. With the outbreak of World War II, Nazi Germany
established a pattern of invading vulnerable neutral states, leading
first British, then American forces to launch a pre-emptive
occupation of the strategic island. Greeted by official protest, the
foreign military pledged non-intervention in Iceland's internal
affairs. Although protective by intent, the sudden influx of vast
numbers of foreign personneland the attendant foreign capitalhad
a dramatic and largely negative impact on the heretofore isolated
Icelandic society. The effects of the war included increased wealth
and a new consumerism as well as a "radical dislocation of
traditional values and the demoralizing effect of easy money"
(Magnusson 1977. 1^2). Icelandic officials promoted minimal contact
with foreign personnel, and one newspaper editorial warned that "too
close contact with the military ... is even more likely to paralyze
our sense of patriotism" (Bjornsdottir 1989, 99)* Although they
benefitted economically from their forced integration into the
35


international community, Icelanders continued to perceive foreigners
as potential threats to their unique culture and hard-won
independence.
Young women who became romantically involved with American or
British servicemen often bore the brunt of Icelanders' hostility
toward the foreign soldiers. Friends and family refused to accept
their non-Icelandic boyfriends and husbands, as "all relationships
between Icelandic women and the soldiers were considered immoral and
unpatriotic" (Bjornsdottir 1989. 109). Questions of patriotism
appear to have been foremost in the minds of Icelandic public
officials, who went so far as to advocate the institutionalization of
all women involved with foreign servicemen. Iceland's surgeon
general at the time warned that if such relationships went
unchallenged, the island would come to "serve as a brothel for the
superpowers" (Bjornsdottir, 103) Of the approximately five hundred
women involved with military men, about three hundred Icelandic women
eventually married foreign soldiers and left Iceland. The public and
private opposition to women's involvement with the unwelcome
occupiers reflected the idealization of the "pure" Icelandic women,
whose choice of foreign mates signalled a "major threat to Iceland's
existence as an independent nation" (115). Thus, the image of the
"Woman of the Mountain" whose strength and virtue led the nation to
36


independence became instead the fearful vision of a morally corrupt
woman whose independence must be curtailed to save the nation. These
conflicting images mirror the contradictory relationship of women to
Icelandic politics dating back to the tenth century.
o
The post-war years brought no resolution to the ambiguous
relationship between Iceland and the international community. In
clear contradiction of its constitutional neutrality, Iceland became
a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 19^9.
This move, and the renewed presence of American forces five years
after hostilities with Germany had ceased, set off bitter and
polarizing debates within the country about Icelandic sovereignty and
neutrality. Indeed, "the question of the American military presence
in Iceland has, more than any other issue, divided the nation into
two opposing camps and has destroyed the national unity which existed
for the first few years after the founding of the Republic"
(Magnusson 1977. 144). Left-wing parties continued to offer
vociferous opposition to the United States' use of the Keflavik air
base, but were unable to prevent a 1951 defense agreement with the
United States.
Attendant with the difficulties inherent in the rapid
modernization of Iceland after the Second World War, Icelandic
politics developed its characteristic instability. The four dominant
37


partiesIndependence, Progressive, People's Alliance, and Social
Democratic (in order of general popularity)although fairly
consistent in their levels of electoral support, only rarely
assembled coalition governments able to last through a full four-year
term (Magnusson 1977. 144). Compounding the already unstable balance
of political power, the 1978 election brought a new volatility to
party politics, with the two dominant groups losing ground to the
traditionally weaker leftist parties. Tomasson (1980) describes the
significance of these shifts:
The Icelanders demonstrated . that they have become
as volatile and changeable in their voting behavior as
the voters of any modern society; traditional party
affiliations have become less salient, and specific
issues and the state of the economy have become more
important. (460)
In addition to such changing priorities, primary elections were
introduced in order to give voters more input into the candidates
included on the party lists. Although intended to open the
nomination process to a less select group, the primaries failed to
increase substantially the low proportion of women in government: in
1978, women accounted for only 6 percent of representatives on the
local level, and five per-cent in the Althing (Styrskarsdottir 1986,
141) .
The political upheavals of the 1970's mirrored other important
38


changes in the Icelandic economy and society. The nation's economy
has always relied heavily upon fishing, with marine exports providing
78 percent of Iceland's foreign exchange in 1978. Volatile foreign
markets and increasing fuel costs contributed to the cost of living
in Reykjavik suffering a seventeen-fold increase between 1968 and
1979 (Tomasson I98O, 35)* Despite rampant inflation, however, modern
Iceland has been able to maintain full employment and one of the
highest standards of living in the world. Economic class divisions,
although increasing in recent years, remain minimal, and few
Icelanders are without modern amenities in their comfortable homes.
Icelanders have also reaped the benefits of careful efforts to
preserve the integrity of their ancient language, and earned the
reputation as the world's most avid readers, with the highest book
and newspaper publications per capita (Tomasson, 33)-
Women's position in Icelandic societyas reflected by trends
in work and education levelshas also shifted since the 1970's. In
the decade from 1970 to 1980, the percentage of married women in the
paid labor force increased from 28 to 65, while the proportion of
women graduating from the University of Iceland jumped from 15 to 40
per-cent (Styrskarsdottir 1986, 1^2). Despite the 1985 law on the
Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women and Men, inequality persists.
Women are concentrated in the lowest-paying professions, while
39


maintaining primary responsibility for child-care and domestic work.
Also quite frustrating for many women who would like to work full-
time is the lack of a continuous day in the Icelandic school system.
Young children are sent home for lunch, forcing one parent (almost
always the mother) to be home in the middle of the day (Kvennalistinn
1987, 10). Thus, women's gains in education and employment, and
their formal legal equality with men have not translated into full
parity.
Despite the persistent disparity, and thanks in part to the
successful 1975 Women's Strike (discussed in greater detail below),
Iceland became the first country to elect a woman to the presidency
in 1980. Vigdis Finnbogadottir (known by her first name, as
Icelanders generally are) is a divorced single mother who before
becoming president had directed a Reykjavik theater. She was opposed
in the election by three male candidates, and won with a less than
two per-cent margin. Although her candidacy was "not a women's
affair in the sense that Icelandic women united behind her and
Icelandic men behind the male candidates," Vigdis' campaign mobilized
women across the country and greatly changed many perceptions of
women's political abilities (Styrskarsdottir 1986, 146).
Nevertheless, President Vigdis, re-elected twice since 1980, holds an
office most notable for its apolitical character. Iceland's
40


president "is outside and above politics. He [sic] personifies the
integrity of the nation, and his functions are mainly connected with
events where his presence proves desirable for its symbolic value"
(Vilhjalmsson 1981, 104). This largely ceremonial job description,
not altogether incompatible with the "Woman of the Mountain" image
already present in Iceland's political iconography, blunts somewhat
the significance of Vigdis' election. In yet another ambiguous twist
to women's political experience in Iceland, their pride in having
elected the first woman president must be tempered by the frustration
of her limited hold on political power.
The gains of Icelandic women, symbolized in the new President,
took place as women elsewhere in the region made even larger strides
toward political equality. We now briefly turn to the rest of
Scandinavia, where contrasting events highlight Icelandic women's
decision to form the first women's political party.
Women in Scandinavia
In many respects, Nordic women share a common heritage of
social structures conducive to feminist activism. In their drive for
suffrage, Scandinavian women were influenced, too, by the first wave
women's movements in England and America (Chafetz and Dworkin 1986,
121). According to Lovenduski (1986), the roles of nineteenth
41


century liberal reform movements and nationalist sentiments in
opening politics to more broad male suffrage also led to increased
acceptance of women's demands for equal participation (48). Linked
as it was to these other social movements, the suffrage movement in
Scandinavia "was gradualist and on the whole moderate, successful
both at mobilizing proportionally large numbers of women and at
gaining its objectives" (Lovenduski 1986, 50). Thus, between 1906
and 1921, the first wave of the women's movement had earned
Scandinavian women full voting rights.
In the 1970's, second-wave feminism emerged in Scandinavia,
where a wide array of feminist organizations developed, many of which
called attention to the low number of women in government. The next
fifteen years saw a steady and impressive increase in Nordic women's
political representation: in 1984, women accounted for "26 per-cent
of the Danish Folketing, 31 per-cent of the Finnish Eduskunta, 26
per-cent of the Norwegian Storting, [and] 28 per-cent of the Swedish
Riksdag" (Lovenduski 1986, 152). In Norway in 1987. women
constituted over 30 per-cent of representatives in local, county, and
national governments, while 44 per-cent of the ruling Social
Democratic government ministers were women (Bystydzienski 1988, 74).
Although women still do not hold political power in proportion to
their numbers in Scandinavian population, they have moved much
42


farther toward numerical equality than almost any other region of the
world (Haavio-Manilla and others 1985, 162).
Many factors contributed to the increase in Nordic women's
political representation. Modern Scandinavia has often been held up
as a model of successful social welfare policies, many of which
directly benefit women. Some analysts view this increased economic
security as an important contribution to women's increased
participation in high-level politics:
Equality and solidarity have been reflected in advanced
social policies as well as a greater degree of equality
with men in terms of income and education than in many
(but not all) other countries. The explanation for the
relatively high level of participation and representation
among women must, therefore, be considered against the
background of a high standard of living which ensures the
average citizen his or her fundamental material needs.
(Haavio-Mannila and others 1985, xix)
In addition to greater economic parity, the responsiveness of
political parties to women's movements in the 1970's and 1980's has
greatly aided women candidates. Sweden, in particular, has shown a
pattern of action on the part of almost all political parties to
include and promote women (Eduards 1981, 213). Norwegian women, too,
benefitted from a favorable climate, but their surge in female
representation has also been linked to a "strong and effectively
organized women's movement" forming a "coalition between
43


establishment and new feminist factions" (Bystydzienski 1988, 73).
Overall, progress in Scandinavia "[has] been considerable and give[s]
some indication of what can be done when even a minimum of political
will to promote women exists" (Lovenduski 1986, 154).
Icelandic Women's Movements
Icelandic women have experienced much less of the success
enjoyed by their Nordic sisters, and the successes they have enjoyed
in recent decades came about through substantially different methods
than elsewhere in Scandinavia. In place of the usual division into
first- and second-wave feminism, Kristmundsdottir (1989) has
identified three phases in Icelandic women's movements:
The first phase is characterized by an acceptance of the
male-dominated authority structure of Icelandic society
and the view that women are culturally different from men
in a positive sense. The second phase is characterized
by a negative evaluation of female cultural
characteristics and an ambivalent attitude toward
authority. . The current third phase in Iceland
women's movements is based on the concept of a distinct
women's culture positively evaluated and a rejection of
the dominant concepts of authority. (80)
These three stages in women's activism also employed distinctively
different methods and met with varying degrees of success.
Suffrage
44


In 1869, the first women's associations formed in the Icelandic
countryside with the purpose of easing some of the hardships faced by
rural women. This early organizational effort was emulated two years
later in Reykjavik, where women mobilized themselves for the purpose
of gaining public funds for girls' education. Both endeavors
preceded the launching of Iceland's women's suffrage movement in the
l880's, when several formal organizations began the drive for women's
full franchise. The first of these groups was the Icelandic Women's
Association (IWA), established in 189^. Emphasizing the need for
women's equal political participation and also calling for
temperance, the IWA declined quickly, to be replaced in 1907 with the
Women's Rights Association (WRA), which is still active on a small
scale today. Women were granted limited local suffrage in 1908, and
in 1915 gained the vote in national elections with a gradually
decreasing age limit (Kristmundsdottir 1989. 81-82).
As women worked toward political enfranchisement within
Iceland, the country as a whole struggled to gain independence from
the Danish crown. During the suffrage movement, Icelandic
nationalism overshadowed the ideology of women's emancipation, as
women gained the vote in the same slow steps as Iceland gained
independence. One Icelandic suffragist wrote that women's strength
and organizational efforts "grew side by side with the struggle for
45


independence, and almost at the same time Iceland and her daughters
became free" (quoted by Kristmundsdottir, 82). This link to the
movement for independence reflects the general acceptance by
Icelandic suffragists of the existing power systems within Icelandic
society.
Iceland's suffragists did, however, question the wisdom of
preventing women's "qualities of practicality, greater consideration
and finer sensibilities" from contributing to government and
society's improvement. A leading suffrage activist described the
need for women's special skills in this way:
Society needs everywhere the detailed and loving mother's
care of women. In all its areas women should be
included. Both as voters and legislators, everywhere
where young and old, poor, destitute and sick are
discussed, everywhere where culture and morality need
spokesmenthere women should be. (Kristmundsdottir
1989, 83)
This call for inclusion included a desire for equality with men, but
did not challenge the underlying distribution of power so
disprportionately beneficial to men (Kristmundsdottir, 85).
Unable to achieve their goals of inclusion by voting for male
candidates from the regular political parties, women organized
separate electoral lists, first on the local, then on the national
level. The first women's slate of candidates was put forward after
46


women gained local voting rights in 1908, and successfully elected
four women to the Reykjavik City Council (Kvennalistinn 1991. 1) .
Employing the same method in 1922, women elected the first female
representative to the Althing. Organizers of the women's lists
failed, however, to assemble policy statements for a permanent
women's party and their goals were not incorporated into the male-
dominated political institutions. Therefore, when political party
loyalties became established along class lines in the 1920's, this
first wave of the Icelandic women's movement receded
(Kristmundsdottir 1989, 83). When modern Icelandic women sought
greater political equality, however, they had only to look at the
suffrage movement's successfulif limitedorganization of women's
lists for proven tactics.
The Redstockings
A second phase in the Icelandic women's movement that would
revitalize feminism began in 1970 with the formation of the
Raudosokkahreyfingin, or Redstockings. Influenced by like-minded
groups in Denmark and the United States, the movement attracted
"young, radical, well-educated women," who tended not to be
affiliated with other women's associations (Styrskarsdottir 1986,
143). Operating as a strong pressure group, rather than as a
47


personal liberation movement, the Redstockings lobbied the government
for free access to abortions and worked against sexual discrimination
in the work place and labor unions. Benefitting until 1974 from a
receptive left-leaning government, the Redstockings' efforts proved
instrumental in liberalizing the abortion laws in 1975- Under the
new law, still in effect, a woman requires a doctor's approval for an
abortion; however, doctors only rarely interfere with a woman's
choice to terminate a pregnancy, and "self-determination is the
practice in Iceland although the law states otherwise"
(Styrskarsdottir 1986, 145). Despite their successful lobbying
efforts, the Redstockings did not forge a new place for women in
politics, or join forces with existing political institutions as had
women's liberation movements elsewhere in Scandinavia.
The theoretical underpinnings of the Redstockings' activities
are described by Kristmundsdottir (1989) as hoping to "free women
from the feminine condition" so that they could "become social men"
(86). In sharp contrast to the suffrage feministswho generally
accepted existing structures of authority, but wished to inject
women's positive cultural differences into politicsthe Redstockings
promulgated a "negative evaluation of female cultural
characteristics" that coexisted with their ambivalence toward
authority" (Kristmundsdottir, 94). The Redstockings' outlook left
48


the following impression on one woman I spoke with: "Women were very
angry at other women who were at home with children and didn't study.
Everyone was so angry in the Redstockings." Another woman remembers
that "in the Redstockings, we were putting ourselves down and taking
men's values. They were very heavy and intellectual." The
Redstockings' platform did indeed become "heavier" after 1974, when
the group embraced a strong Marxist platform that left little room
for priorities other than the class struggle (Styrskarsdottir 1986,
146). This move isolated the Redstockings, limiting their
membership and the impact upon Icelandic politics of second-wave
f eminism.
Prior to its demise, the Redstocking movement did, however,
make a major contribution to the Icelandic women's solidarity, at
least for one day. Responding to a desire to bring attention to
women's undervalued work, the Redstockingsalong with four other
women's organizationsmobilized the Women's Strike on October 24,
1975* An estimated 25,000 women attended a strike rally in
Reykjavik, while across the country nearly ninety-five per cent of
Icelandic women abandoned their paid and unpaid work for the day
(Styrskarsdottir, 146-47). The overwhelming success of the "Women's
Day Off" seems to indicate a high measure of feminist sentiment in
Iceland at that time; however, with the Redstocking movement in
49


steady decline, a similar scale of women's mobilization would await
the formation of a women's political party nearly seven years later.
The Women's Alliance
Several factors within Iceland's political structure
contributed to the development of a separate political party for
women. For instance, the wide acceptance within Iceland of
egalitarian principles (and the clear violation of that ethic in
terms of women in politics) helped to ensure electoral support of
women's lists of candidates. More significantly, however, the
political party system itselfclosed as it is to outside candidates-
-virtually mandated that women forge their own way to increased
political representation. Unlike political parties elsewhere in
Scandinavia, the Icelandic parties failed to incorporate the
activists of the 1970's women's movement into their fold, leaving
feminist voters with no satisfactory electoral outlet outside of a
separate women's list (Hardarson and Kristinsson 1987, 223).
This unchanneled energy found an outlet in the already-proven
method of a separate women's list. In November 1981, 600 women
gathered in Reykjavik to discuss the need for women's voice in
government. Acting on an idea brought forward at the 1980 Women's
Rights Organization conference, the women assembled agreed to run a
50


women's list of candidates in the 1982 municipal elections in
Reykjavik and in the northern town of Akureyri. Kvennaframbothid
succeeded in electing two women each to Reykjavik's and Akureyri's
city councils, earning 10.9 per cent and Y].k per cent, respectively,
of the vote (Styrskarsdottir 1986, 150).
In addition to emulating the suffragists' methods for gaining
political seats, the fledgling women's party philosophy reflected
certain aspects of the suffrage ideology. Kvennaframbothid rejected
the Redstocking's negative appraisal of women's experience, calling
instead for the preservation of women's shared, positive skills in
preserving peace, conserving resources, and nurturing life.
According to their 1982 manifesto, Kvennaframbothid urged for the
"unused knowledge of women to be put to use, [for] their world of
experience [to] be made visible and valued equally to men's point of
view as a directing force in society" (quoted by Kristmundsdottir
1989, 91)- Clearly reminiscent of the earlier movement's espousal of
the "loving mother's care" in government, the new women's slates went
a step further by calling for such values to be held equal to the
masculine paradigm, and indeed for men to "subscribe to women's world
of experience in the same way as women can subscribe to what is best
and most viable in the attitudes of men" (quoted by Kristmundsdottir,
91). From the outset, then, this third phase of Icelandic feminism
51


borrowed heavily from the suffrage movements ideas about the need
for women's "special contribution" to public life, but departed from
the earlier movement's acceptance of society's male-dominated
authority structure.
The working methods employed by the group reflected their
strong egalitarian philosophy. Kvennaframbothid used consensus
decision-making processes and incorporated a "flat" structure, with
no designated leader or spokesperson. Mutual support was ensured
through the party's
insistence that the workload [be] spread around the whole
of the group, thereby ensuring that no one woman took a
disproportionate share of the work (for example attending
too many press conferences), and that no woman either
addressed or was addressed by the media on her own.
(Dominelli and Jonsdottir 1988, k2)
In this spirit, the party instituted rotation of elected
representatives, who would turn over their duties to their alternates
after a term and a half in office. Organizing demonstrations and
marches to call attention to the inequities in political and domestic
life, the group originally intended to use a women's list as only one
tactic of a broader movement. As one of the women elected to the
Reykjavik City Council commented, "We were there to make them angry,"
and to prove that, if mobilized, women could enter the exclusive
domain of male politics.
52


With two women sitting on the City Council, the movement behind
Kvennaframbothid gradually lost momentum, due in large part to the
heavy work load faced by the new chancellories. Weekly meetings
between the chancellories and their supporters were consumed by
tedious issues of city government, and gradually fewer and fewer
women attended. Meanwhile, the new representatives slowly gained
familiarity with the city government power structure, and were often
forced to make decisions without the consensus support of the group.
Dominelli and Jonsdottir (1988) view these events as the inevitable
"encroachment of hierarchy" upon a group thrust into an authoritarian
system devoid of alternative structures:
This combination of reduced grass-roots involvement and a
greater familiarity with local authority procedures
greatly enhanced the Kvennaframbothid councillor's power
and, despite their intentions, distorted the relationship
between them and their supporters by eroding the non-
hierarchical structures the group had worked hard to
establish at its inception. (44)
These authors also link Kvennaframbothid's demise to unresolved
"ideological rifts" concerning, most significantly, the group's
advocacy of a "feminine tradition" with its roots in women's
traditionally undervalued, family-oriented labor. In advocating this
feminine tradition, the party failed to come to terms with the
oppression so often inherent in women's familial relationships and
53


domestic duties, both of which often conflicted with individual's
commitment to Kvennaframbothid (Dominelli and Jonsdottir, 4l).
Despite the practical and philosophical difficulties
experienced by the group, discussion arose in 1982 about running
candidates in upcoming national elections. Unable to reach
consensus, members of Kvennaframbothid voted and by a margin of one
rejected the proposal to form a national Women's List. The
organization split, and those who had been voted down prepared to put
candidates forward for parliament under the new name of "Samtok urn
Kvennalistinn" (The Alliance of the Women's List).
Among those who proceeded with the formation of Kvennalistinn,
many spoke of the enthusiasm and momentum of the movement: "This
thing had taken on a life of its own, and we were powerless to stop
it. We had to go on." In contrast, the motivations of those who
opposed continuing political participation were often superficially
perceived. The following comment is representative of those of
several interviewees: "I had the feeling at the time that it was
more women who had conflictual interests with other parties who
stayed back because they saw us as a threat to the parties they
supported." In fact, none of the three women who "stayed back" that
I spoke with had such conflicts of loyalty. Indeed, two of the
threedespite their philosophical misgivingsgive Kvennalistinn
54


their electoral support (the third chose not to vote at all). In
place of political conflicts, all three women spoke of deep
philosophical doubts about the appropriateness of participating in a
"corrupt and corrupting" political system. For instance, one woman
was gravely disturbed by the motivations of those who wished to
continue as a political party: "I didn't see any meaning in this.
This was taking part just for the sake of taking part. This was
giving power to individual women, not to all women." Clearly, the
split within Kvennaframbothid, often glossed over by those writing
and speaking of the birth of Kvennalistinn, indicates a deep division
within the group about the appropriateness of engaging in
institutional politics and the impact such participation has on a
non-hierarchical movement. Moreover, the same ambiguities within
Kvennaframbothid that caused this initial cleavage also mark the most
important fracture lines within today's Women's Alliance (as I will
argue in Chapter 3)
With an emphasis on increasing women's representation in the
Althing, Kvennalistinn appealed to a wider range of members than had
the more structure-challenging Kvennaframbothid. The new party
"attracted to its membership women from all parts of the political
spectrum, rather than primarily progressive or left-oriented women"
(Dominelli and Jonsdottir 1988, ^7)- Until the dissolution of
55


Kvennaframbothid in 1986, the two groups operated quite separately
with Kvennalistinn active on the national level and Kvennaframbothid
still holding seats on the local level. (Beginning in 1986,
Kvennalistinn offered candidates for both local and national
elections in Iceland.)
Revived by the challenge of national politics, and supported by
many of Kvennaframbothid's members, the new party quickly mobilized
for the parliamentary election. When the votes were tallied,
Kvennalistinn had earned 5*5 per-cent of the mandate and held three
seats in the Althing. Four years later, the Women's Alliance doubled
its representation to six members of parliament, enough to hold the
balance of power in government. Invited to negotiations for the new
coalition, Kvennalistinn did not earn concessions on its major demand
of minimum-wage legislation, and therefore declined an invitation to
join in the government. This move prompted criticism from some
circles that the party was fearfully shirking its duty to take part
in real power, while others admired the group's strong stand.
The controversy most likely contributed to Kvennalistinn's
slight loss in the 1991 election, from 10 to 8.3 per-cent of the
vote. Nevertheless, the election was a turning point for the Women's
Alliance, making it "the first new party to get MP's elected in three
consecutive elections" and "the most serious challenger to the
56


established four-party format since the 1930's" (Arnason 1991, 181;
Kristinsson 1991. 3^3)- This third phase of women's political action
has left the strongest mark upon Iceland's established political
institutions.
Impact on Icelandic politics. Women's representation in the
Althing has increased dramatically since Kvennalistinn's emergence,
but the majority of new women in government come from the other
parties. Observers both inside and outside the Women's Alliance
attribute this increase to the pressure placed on traditional parties
by Kvennalistinn: "They had to react in one way or another, so they
put their women higher on their lists. Also, the women could demand
more because we were there." The early successes of the new party
may also have contributed to greater attention to women's issues,
which previously had received little more than "lip service" from the
male-dominated parties. In the Althing, the first reactions to
Kvennalistinn MP's was described by one interviewee as a somewhat
paternalistic "friendly curiosity." "They didn't see us as a
threat," she remarked, "but that changed. When we started gaining in
the polls, they started being harder on us."
Because of the opposition status of the Women's Alliance, their
full impact on the policies of the Icelandic government is difficult
to gauge. On one level, the most obvious progress in terms of
57


women's issuesthe extension of maternity leave from three to six
monthsappears only indirectly linked to Kvennalistinn's influence.
During their first term in office, Women's Alliance MP's introduced a
bill doubling the length of maternity leaves, but it was defeated.
In 1987, though, when the government sponsored a very similar
measure, the parliament accepted it. Stated a Kvennalistinn
representative, "They would never admit that Kvennalistinn had
anything to do with it, but we are sure." A major frustration for
the Women's Alliance has been their failure to change school hours,
"something that should have happened years ago."
The Women's Alliance has had a strong, but indirect impact on
the Icelandic political system. While some legislative progress has
been made (most obviously in the extension of maternity leave)
Kvennalistinn can not claim direct credit. Similarly, improvements
in the political climate for women, although encouraging, do not
signal any real welcoming of women parliamentarians or substantial
concern for women's issues. In recent years, in fact, the party has
found itself defending previous gains from the threat of the
conservative government's attempts to dismantle parts of the social
welfare system. The frustrations faced by Kvennalistinn in their
desire to bring a new perspective to government are consistent with
the paradox of women in Icelandic politics.
58


Working methods and organization. In ten years of political
activity, many changes have taken place in the working methods and
organizational structure of the Women's Alliance. Although still
identifying itself as a grass-roots movement more than a political
party, Kvennalistinn has traveled a long way from the high energy and
idealistic principles of the early 1980's. Sincere efforts are
continually made by the organization to preserve elements of mass-
participation and organizational consensus; however, over time their
working methods have come to resemble more and more those of an
established political party rather than of a mass movement.
Since attaining national office, the Women's Alliance has
gradually modified some of its basic priorities to conform to the
practical demands of governing. For example, Kvennalistinn's system
of candidate rotation, carried over from the local women's lists of
1982, proved difficult to implement. While still holding the
principle of rotation, mid-term changes in representative have been
phased out, due both to the confusion within the electorate caused by
a change of faces, and to the tremendous amount of work entailed in
the shift. It remains to be seen if the popular parliamentarians now
in office will extend their tenure further by standing for re-
election after two full terms.
Of the women I spoke with about the party, virtually all
59


praised Kvennalistinn for its openness, describing an atmosphere in
which one dedicated person can make a difference. "It's a very open
party," said one woman, "You can just walk in there and participate
. . and change things if you really work." All meetings of the
party are open, including twice-weekly meetings of the MP's, a five-
member executive committee meeting held two or three times a month,
and informal Saturday morning coffees. Attendance at these meetings,
however, is not high, especially between election campaigns. The
annual conference, held in November, and the spring meeting in May
attract more participants, but it is only in recent years that the
party has attracted a small group of new, younger members. Several
of these women expressed frustration with a tendency for the more
seasoned party members to discount the newcomer's input. Said one,
"We're twenty years younger, but that doesn't make our experience any
less important." This generational conflict, and the highly
structured system of sparsely attended meetings, clearly distinguish
the Women's Alliance from a mass-based social movement.
Consensus decision making is another philosophical tenet
adhered to in theory, but largely diluted in practice. Despite the
open-door policy, several women expressed concern that a small "inner
circle" makes most important decisions, relying not upon consensus of
the whole group, but upon an informal elite for decisions. The
60


process by which women are chosen to be on the list of candidates
reflects such informal mechanisms. Explained one long-time member of
Kvennalistinn whose name has appeared on their list of candidates:
"Women who are interested give their names. Then people call you and
say please why don't you run. Then you feel the atmosphere, and if
you have some support, you say go ahead and put my name on." This
list is sent in the newsletter to the membership, who rank the names
in a binding poll for placement on the list. One Kvennalistinn
supporter felt very much excluded from the process, complaining, "I
think they are using the method more and more that when something
needs to be decided, they call their friends in the party and that's
how they decide." As one member of the "inner circle" frankly
admitted, "Informal power becomes what actually matters. If someone
has time to do it, they can. If someone wants to use their power,
they can, and it may very well be against majority will."
Another factor limiting the particpatory and grass-roots nature
of the Women's Alliance is the middle-class status of its membership.
Although the party worked hard to improve the wages of Iceland's
lowest-paid workers, working-class women and those without a
university education are conspicuously absent from Kvennalistinn's
ranks. "Uneducated women don't find any sisterhood there," remarked
a young woman who otherwise thought very highly of the party, while
61


another observed that the party should "do more for working-class
women. They are afraid to come in because most women in
Kvennalistinn are very well educated." Rather than mobilizing all
women and bringing them into politics, it would seem that
Kvennalistinnlike Iceland's traditional political partiesdraws
its support very much along class lines.
The desire by members of the Women's Alliance to increase and
broaden membership is frustrated by the lack of demonstrations and
other informal political actions that characterize a grass-roots
movement. Organizing marches is simply not seen as an appropriate
role for a political party, as one MP explained to me. The fun and
energy of earlier days was sorely missed by most women I spoke with.
One very disillusioned woman, no longer active with the party,
lamented the loss of the movement, while chiding Kvennalistinn for
not acknowledging the shift away from mass action:
Kvennalistinn was a movement and now it is a political
party. Women who started in the movement don't want to
admit this fact, that it is a political party, so they
are always waiting for the grass-roots to do something,
but it won't do anything. Maybe they are tired or women
who were not with the movement think, 'Oh, they're so
smart these women and they have great ideas, and there's
nothing for me to do.'
Perhaps, she speculated, the very existence of a women's party
prevents the kind of activism which was its genesis. Several young
62


women indirectly supported such a theory in their comments to me,
describing their faith that the Women's Alliance would act as an
effective advocate on their behalf: "Kvennalistinn is the biggest
power of women in Iceland. You always try that. You think that if
anyone can do something, if anyone belongs to me as a political
party, it is them."
As an organization, Kvennalistinn faces pressure from the
inside to serve as continued catalyst to an active mass movement,
while resistingwith limited successthe forces from without that
urge them to conform to more pragmatic and traditional methods. One
MP describes her experience thus: "I feel sometimes we have become
isolated; we are living in two worlds. . The grass-roots feels
that we are becoming too effective at politics and making decisions
too quickly, while parliament feels we are too slow, using too much
time in consulting." The "two worlds" in which the Women's Alliance
moves clearly have incompatible demands. Efforts to maintain
elements of a grass-roots movement restrict Kvennalistinn's
operations as a political party, while party politics dampen the
enthusiasm of those women who do maintain an active role.
Kvennalistinn's dual identity dilutes the justified pride which the
group holds in its accomplishments on the political stage, while
63


possibly discouraging potential young activists from re-charging a
non-institutional movement of Icelandic women.
Conclusion
Operating under several important structural constraints, the
Women's Alliance has nevertheless made tremendous gains in their
efforts to bring more women into politics. The Icelandic system
relies upon strong party organizations and individual political
personalities, both of which are eschewed by the Women's Alliance.
Still, they maintain steady electoral support while attempting, with
some success, to retain the qualities of participation and openness
that so energized Icelandic women in the early 1980's.
Just as Kvennalistinn has faced frustrating challenges in their
attempts to be both movement and party, so too have Icelandic women's
experiences of politics been marked by contradiction. In the tenth
century as in the twentieth, from the Woman of the Mountain to the
Women's Alliance, paradox has marked women's political status in
Iceland. As I shall argue in the next chapter, the intersection of
Kvennalistinn's philosophy with existing theoretical constructs and
prior case studies proves no less contradictory.
6k


CHAPTER 3
FEMINIST POLITICS AND THE WOMEN'S ALLIANCE OF ICELAND
The primary task of this chapter is to juxtapose the
experiences of Kvennalistinn with existing theories of feminist
politics. Within this context, I present the major philosophical
concerns of the organization, highlighting several points of
contradiction in their philosophy. After evaluating the degree to
which the Women's Alliance reflects feminist principles, I compare
their political impact and the effect of politics upon the group to
the findings of other case studies. Throughout the chapter, the
voices of women involved in Kvennalistinn serve to remind us once
again both of the complexities of theoretical analyses, and of the
richness of human experience that abstract models so arduously
attempt to explicate.
Theoretical Context
Returning to the three issues of theoretical concern discussed
in the literature reviewthe definition of "feminism," the effect of
political activity on women's movements, and the impact of such
movements upon political institutionswe can view Kvennalistinn's
65


philosophy and activities through a variety of lenses. For instance,
using Lovenduski's (1986) broad definition of feminism as reform-
oriented efforts on behalf of women, the Women's Alliance fits well.
However, choosing instead the distinction made by Chafetz and Dworkin
(1986), and similarly by Alvarez (1990) and Molyneux (1986), between
groups simply working on behalf of women, and organizations that work
to dismantle power structures oppressive to women, Kvennalistinn's
inclusion in the family of feminism is less clear. Moreover, to
accept Randall's supposition that multiple meanings and contextual
understandings are paramount to identifying feminism is to throw neat
categories of "feminist" and "non-feminist" into further confusion.
Therefore, rather than choosing one of these author's
definitions and defending it against multiple and justified
objections, I will instead present what I see as Kvennalistinn's own
style of feminism, one that has emerged from unique circumstances and
can broaden the earlier constructions. In so doing, I neither reject
the existing frameworks of feminist thought, nor embrace whole-
heartedly the philosophy and methods chosen by Kvennalistinn.
Instead, I simply use Iceland's experience as a lens through which to
view feminist theory, rather than vice versa.
66


Women's Alliance Philosophy
One long-term activist with the group and current Kvennalistinn
representative describes their philosophy thus:
We stress the positivehow good it is to be a woman.
How much women have learned from their mothers and
grandmothers. It is a very positive experience to raise
children, to teach children, to nurse people. Probably
the most important things in life are taking care of and
helping other people. And from that point of view, we
should go out into society and have influence on politics
because of this good experience.
This optimistic outlook succeeds in affirming the life experiences of
Icelandic women, and virtually all of my interviewees praised this
aspect of the group's philosophy. "I think Kvennalistinn respects
all women and what all women do," stated one woman, "They make women
proud to be women." Such pride in womanhood contrasts sharply with
the Redstockings' anti-feminine stance, and projects an inclusive and
positive image to Icelandic women.
While the overall outlook of the Women's Alliance has not
shifted greatly, some changes in perspective have occurred over the
years. In 1987, the party extolled women's common circumstances:
"the conditions of women are so similar all over the world . that
there are no foreigners in the land of women. We have indeed much
more in common than that which separates us" (Kvennalistinn 1987,
iii). However, "in recent years, we have looked more at the
67


diversity of women," explained one MP, and "there's a change to
seeing women also as belonging to different groups." Although the
central emphasis on women's positive cultural characteristics still
figures prominently in the thinking of the organization, this move
toward acknowledging diversity has also blunted somewhat the
universality of sisterhood extolled by the party's earlier
philosophy: "We have moved away from this thinking that women are
special, although there is truth in it." Other changes have
resulted directly from participating in formal politics. As women
gained in parliamentary experience, specialization of roles and the
attendant hierarchy became more accepted by the women I spoke with.
"To me it's a sign of organizational maturity to realize that some
women here are better at politics than others," remarked one woman,
while another stated simply that "all women are not equally good for
this kind of thing." Such statements are a far cry from the
egalitarian labor and role distribution so emphasized by earlier
activists. Even with such alterations in theoretical perspective, the
Women's Alliance nevertheless continues to emphasize the importance
of bringing women's positive contributions to public life.
In highlighting this "women as special" thinking, the party
makes overt reference both in personal interviews and in written
materials to women's traditional roles, while occasionally skirting
68


the very important issue of whether such roles are inherently
oppressive to women. According to their 1987 policy statement, which
describes Kvennalistinn's positions on over twenty wide-ranging
issues, "the practical and economic housewife, who spends in
accordance with her means" provides the model for the party's
economic policies (ii). For a group hoping to move women into
politics (which presumably would move them out of the home), how is
this dependence upon domestic symbolism justified? A long-time
Kvennalistinn member reacted quite strongly to my question about the
propriety of such an image to a women's political party:
The analogy [of the frugal housewife]. . is used quite
consciously, using feminine language to show the feminine
touch and to show that we are different [as a political
party] and give stronger statements to women. [Women]
can understand it even better than men, and we are
appealing to that, and it has worked. At the same time,
we are rejecting it. The idea that we are idealizing
housework is a misunderstanding.
This position is, in fact, quite widely misunderstood among the women
I spoke with, who almost without exception praised Kvennalistinn's
support for the strength of women's traditional roles. Thus, the
position held by the partyand exemplified in the above defense of
Kvennalistinnthat women's traditional roles should be valued in and
of themselves can be separated neither from an "idealization of
housework" nor from the widespread perception within the party that
69


Kvennalistinn's philosophy embraces essentialist assumptions about
the source of feminine strengths.
The above quote is also illustrative of subtle disparities in
power between those in the "inner circle" who design, or at least
formalize, the group's philosophy, and those who support the group
but do not participate in the party at such a high level. (This lack
of participation may be due to unfamiliarity with formal or informal
mechanisms of the group, or to simple time constraints.) Explaining
once again the misconception about womens domestic roles, the same
well-educated woman said that "the misunderstanding is based on the
fact that people didn't know what the ideology was. . You have a
lot of women who can not talk theory." This comment implies that
higher and lower levels of understanding inform Kvennalistinn's
philosophy. Again, the same woman elucidated this dynamic: "I can
see an outsider listening to a discussion at Kvennalstinn and
thinking we are essentialist. I don't think we are, but some people
could interpret it that way because they dont know better." Not
knowing better, it would seem, is not a fate reserved for foreigners
attempting to understand the Women's Alliance, but extends as well to
"unenlightened" members of Kvennalistinn, and to those who support
the party precisely because of their emphasis on women's domestic and
nurturant skills. In light of the widespread appeal of their
70


emphasis on the feminine, using traditional images to garner wide
supportthen attempting to discount the implications of such
imageryamounts to a sacrificing of philosophical clarity in the
name of political expediency. The resultant confusion may then
conveniently be blamed on an inability of "outsiders" to "do theory."
There is dissent within the party as well from those (usually
younger) women who perceived a certain maternal quality in the
political demands of the first Kvennalistinn parliamentarians and an
overemphasis on women's reproductive roles in their policy formation.
Stated one young, single mother, "I don't want to be only a mother, I
want to be a woman, and have my rights because I am a woman, not just
because I am a mother." This same woman, ironically enough, was very
accepting of the overall emphasis of the party on women's feminine
strengths, but also wanted more discussion of economic matters.
Voicing a similar concern, another young woman (who was not a mother)
asserted: "For the younger ones like me, this motherly politics is
not what we want to do"; she would prefer a bit more assertive style.
Like many people I spoke with, these women embraced the "woman as
special" philosophy, but also desired more organizational structure
and grass-roots involvement. Of course, the latter demand calls for
egalitarianism and decentered operation, while the former requires
traditionally hierarchical operating methods. The conflicting nature
71


of these criticisms was quite striking, and at times, baffling.
Typically, women who could not say enough about the power of the
"feminine approach" to politics would in the next breath proclaim,
for instance, that the party was "not focussed enough; they are very
afraid to say who is in charge and don't have enough structure."
Thus, the ambiguity in Kvennalistinn's philosophy extends both to a
hidden discord among the group's supporters about the appropriateness
and efficacy of using "feminine" symbolism, and to an internally
conflictual operating ethic.
With such contradictions in mind, what approach should be used
to evaluate the party's degree of feminism? Using feminism defined
in context (as supported by Randall), an evaluation of
Kvennalistinn's philosophy must consider the history of the
Redstockings and Kvennaframbothid. Both organizationswith their
structure-challenging orientationswould fit more neatly into the
feminist (rather than pro-woman or feminine) camp then does the
Women's Alliance, which represents a rejection of a more radical
Icelandic tradition. At the same time, as one observer pointed out,
"women as special is radical according to the old politics." In'
addition, the early declines of the more radical groups may have
taught important lessons to Kvennalistinn's supporters. Perhaps the
degree to which an organization is termed feminist should depend more
72


upon the specific aims and tactics of the group within its own
cultural and political framework, than upon an abstract
"international standard" of acceptably feminist action. As another
Kvennalistinn activist explained, "maybe it would be better to use
different language so we could really sound great to the feminists in
the rest of the world, but that may not be the most productive thing
to do." Looking, then, at how the group's language is evaluated by
women within Iceland, my interviews shed some light on how feminist
the party is perceived to be by their members. The answer of one
former activist, asked whether she thought the Women's Alliance
reflected feminist principles was a resounding "no." She explained,
"I don't see them arguing in a feminist way. They are good
politicians, clever and professional, but that doesn't mean they are
feminist." A young woman with a much more positive (and trusting)
perspective replied to the question simply, "I hope so!" Wide
variations in response, and the divergent perspectives of women in
Iceland demonstrate that relying upon the comments of interviewees
does not resolve the question of how Kvennalistinn fits into the
wides spectrum of feminist theory.
While the evaluation of Kvennalistinn's feminism, especially by
their supporters, employs a great deal of subjectivity, turning to
more "objective" theoretical constructions does little to resolve the
73


controversy. Just as other authors have distinguished between
feminine and feminist groups, Chafe (1991) presents the argument for
a distinctive "women's culture" in this way:
According to this analysis, women's 'separate sphere'
provides a basis for sharing strengths and values that
comprise a distinctive cultural worldview. When women
unite around these values and concerns, they represent a
powerful force for social change and transformation,
significantly improving the world they live in by acting
on their distinctive qualities, (ix)
The Woman's Alliance clearly embraces this position, but celebrates
women's difference as a cultural, rather than a biological artifact
(although not all representatives of the party clearly differentiate
these positions). Does this distinction free the Women's Alliance
from the label "essentialist"? At least in Chafe's discussion, the
cause of women's "separate sphere" and "distinctive cultural
worldview" is not at issue. Rather, what matters is whether such
difference is accepted as normal and "good" or is rejected as a
product and source of patriarchal oppression.
Kvennalistinn appears on the surface to fall into the first
category, but closer examination reveals that their philosophy
directly challenges masculinist dominance. The party's policy
demands an equality with men in which "women's experiences and our
resulting set of values are evaluated equally on their own merits,"
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and women are not forced to "mould ourselves to the standards that
men set" (Kvennalistinn 1987, i). Their philosophy thus presents a
challenge to the dominant ideas that guide Icelandic systems of
authority. In assessing the degree of Kvennalistinn's feminism,
then, what stands out as most important is not whether or not the
group falls neatly into a hypothetical dichotomy between
revolutionary feminism and other types of women's actions. The key
to their "revolutionary" potential is grounded instead in the
transformational element of the party's work. For despite gradual
institutionalization and encroaching hierarchy, the Women's Alliance
remains grounded in its demand that women's different strengths
regardless of sourcebe integrated into existing power structures in
order to ensure a better life for all Icelanders. Notwithstanding
contradictions within their philosophy and the conflicting demands
placed upon them by their supporters and by the political system in
which they operate, Kvennalistinn has succeeded in elevating long-
neglected issues of special concern to women into national debate,
while strongly contributing to dramatic increases in women's overall
political representation. Their strength lies in part upon their
rejection of outside measures of feminism; they are confident that
what works best in Iceland is what matters. Such an independent
75


spirit has guided Icelandic women through the ages, and continues to
serve them well.
Impact
Although the political experiences of women's organizations do
not translate easily across cultural lines, a comparison of
Kvennalistinn's effect upon and within the political process uncovers
analogous configurations in women's groups' political encounters.
For instance, the hostility faced by new women parliamentarians in
Iceland as they enter a near-exclusive male domain has been an
important factor limiting women's political efficacy in other
countries. Similarly, the impact of second wave feminism, which
Randall cites as instrumental in bringing women's issues into public
debate, had a correspondingly strong impact on Icelandic politics,
although it took a separate political party to make real gains in
women's numerical representation. Lovenduski's (1986) conclusions
about women in European politics bring to light the shared mistrust
of many second wave feminists, activists wholike Icelandic women
often translated their increased awareness and activism into "a quest
for political power and influence" (115). Such broad patterns
support a commonality of experience for women across geographic
lines.
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Such general similarities, however, are overshadowed by the
obstacles to generalizations about organized women's political
experience. For instance, while Icelandic women have faced some of
the same challenges Alvarez (1990) describes Brazilian women
encountering, the realities of a racially homogeneous, politically
secure island do not neatly parallel the situation of women in the
economically and racially diverse South American country undergoing a
dramatic political transformation. Indeed, that the two countries
share the contradictory implications of political
institutionalization may be in itself remarkable. Even comparing
Iceland to a the much geographically closer and politically similar
experiences of Swedish women illuminates difference more than
consistency of experience, with Sweden's political elites responding
much more quickly and favorably to second wave feminism that did
Iceland's less amenable parties. Moreover, the harsh contrast of
Icelandic women's situation to the lives of women in "underdeveloped"
regionswhere often survival is a daily struggle and political
representation is virtually nonexistentunderscores the
dissimilarities of women's experience.
The significance of specific cultural and structural factors in
determining the impact women's movements have on politics is
magnified by the very adaptability of feminist thinking to widely
77


varying situations and doctrines. Such fluidity makes even more
difficult the challenge of choosing effective tactics for bringing
feminism into politics:
The fact that feminism is a partial ideology that can
prove compatible with liberal, conservative, radical, and
socialist ideologies compounds the controversy over which
strategies would be most effective in combating women's
oppression. (Alvarez 1990, 2k)
All women's movements face important choices about strategy, choosing
to work within or outside of existing institutions, and to form or
avoid coalitions with other organizations. Randall has suggested
that in order to achieve the greatest influence, women's movements
must ally with existing leftist groups. One Kvennalistinn MP,
however, suggested that the party need not limit itself to leftist
alliances: "I can see KL in a coalition government, but not
necessarily a left government. We have to emphasize, like other
parties do, that these are our main issues and demands, and see which
parties are most willing to work with us." The political factors
shaping Kvennalistinn's acceptance of coalition partners thus will
prove more important than abstract ideals of leftist unity. That the
Women's Alliance must focus more upon making progress on specific
issues while remaining political viable clearly reflects their
strategy of working inside established institutions.
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Even as Kvennalistinn has attempted to work from the inside of
the political system, they have been thwarted both by their continued
political isolation, and by the loss of movement energy caused by
political participation. In the process, the group has lost
credibility with some Icelandic feminists because of their choice to
work within the system. One woman I spoke with was quite cognizant
of this dilemma:
It's very difficult to be a feminist and speak from the
center. You have to be in the margin to be credible. We
are facing this problem, too, that if women get very
strong or powerful, we are almost automatically rejected.
Thus, even the limited political power that the party has earned is
diminished by women's peripheral status within Icelandic government
and by the loss of credibility with Icelandic feminists most likely
to provide movement energy and outside pressure to the party.
Conclusion
The junction between the philosophy of Kvennalistinn and
existing theories of feminist politicsalthough not escaping the
general contradictions that have marked the history of women in
Icelandic politicsbrings forward some important issues. Most
importantly, this analysis has demonstrated that Kvennalistinn has
successfully constructed its own form of feminist practice, an
79


application of feminist ideas to politics that at once draws upon
women's traditional roles and wishes to transform society. The
philosophy of Kvennalistinn conforms neatly neither to abstract
theoretical models nor to the experiences of other women's
organizations in politics. Rather, the Women's Alliance presents an
illuminating example of what women may achieve in a political
environment historically very resistant to women's participation. In
overcoming some of the obstacles to greater female participation in
Icelandic government, the group has had a strong impact upon
Icelandic politcs and has been affected in turn by its political
participation. In many ways, the progress the Women's Alliance has
made in increasing attention to women in government has been
paralelled by the widening distance between their early ideals and
current practice. Were a new movement of Icelandic women to take
shape outside of the party, this new energy could challenge and
support Kvennalistinn, re-energizing the group at a crucial juncture.
Whether or not this development takes place, women around the world
may look to this small northern island for a courageous, if
imperfect, attempt to transform politics.
80


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