Wednesday 21 February 2024


Because of a comment by Icelandophile Professor Batty, and subsequent to-fro, I've gone deep on Eliza Reid, who will cease being Forsetafrú = First Lady this summer after two terms. I've been reading her The Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World (1922). It's a deep dive into Europe's most equal society through the voices of not-men who have shaped and benefitted from that playing field - still bumpy but A Lot flatter than, say, Ireland's - let alone Iranland!  

Reid, who grew up in rural Ontario, apparently met her Icelandic husband Guðni Jóhannesson on a blind-date  . . . in Oxford, when they were both there as students. He came home and soon landed a faculty position in University of Iceland. He's a 20thC historian who had articulate and sensible things to say about The Cod Wars with UK and the Banking Collapse. When the long-term President finally retired in 2016 then fans-friends-and-relations urged Guðni to run for the office and he won the election quite convincingly. His bookish, entrepreneurial wife thus became First Lady and a reluctant fashion-icon - she didn't stop shopping in charity shops just because she had to attend state banquets around the World. She also famously penned an OpEd for the NYT basically saying "ég er ekki handtaska mannsins míns" = I am not my husband's handbag. In other words, the partner of the powerful [man] may be the power behind the throne and is, for sure, not a decorative cipher.

The book is Reid's homage to the women of her adopted country; and she carried out her research at farms, quaysides, C-suites and saunas. One of her informants shared an obscure word which appears six times in the eddas: Sprakki = an extraordinary woman; plural Sprakkar. It became a shoo-in to incorporate the word into the title of her book. Contrary to Reid's assertions in some of her many interviews and pieces-to-camera, Icelandic is not the only European language to have a respectful, slightly frightening, noun describing any class of woman. Irish has cailleach for starters. Jenni Nuttall has logged a long list of ♀-pejoratives in English. None of which I'll repeat here because there's quite enough slaggin' of women when they don't conform to door-mat.

Sprakkar has an essay about Cap'n Dóra Unnarsdóttir, [R - be very afraid] a fish-whisperer who conjures cod from the wild Atlantic. She sat her Ship Captain's exam in 2012 filling the sea-boots of her father and grandfather before her. She suffered through a period of ribbing by the other fishermen, but that was replaced by respeck when she reliably reached her quotas quicker than they did  . . . and slagged back when they teased her.

In the corridors of power, one force is the FKA Félag Kvenna í Atvinnulífinu (Association of Women Business Leaders). Which is still smaller than it should be. But one of Reid's informants shared that, a fortnight after the FKA had named her Business Woman of the Year, her company had finally made her EVP. Corporations can be shamed by irony?

As it happens The Blob has tribbed Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first elected female head of state. That Sprakki ᛋᛒᚱᛅᚴᚴᛁ was elected in 1980 and was re-elected as President 3 subsequent times. Setting a precedent for what women could do and what a whole country could do about gender equality. That election was the cake that had been baking for five years since the 1975 Women's Work Stoppage, which forced everyone to see that changing diapers, gutting fish, telling at banks, typing letters was a) not much fun b) essential. Men referred to that day later as L o n g Friday.

You may not have the dedication to read through Secrets of the Sprakkar but you can catch a flavour of Eliza Reid's voice in a 06 May 2022 talk at Seattle's National Nordic Museum or on 09 May 2023 at the Montclair Literary Festival. It is a significant meta-point that on these two different occasions she is thriftily wearing the same dress - HeadOfState WAGs please copy.  Natch she done a TEDx: in whc she TMIs the initial blind-date. And look out for Eliza Reid's new murder-mystery. And Iceland still means Grindavík in my sources of anxiety.

I mentioned at the top that The President of Iceland is stepping down this Summer and elections are set for the Spring. What next for the retiring head of state? Here is one possibility: hooking up with his twin brother separated at birth to do a two-hander called Some Geezer fed my Geyser: an investigation into the state of Icelandic gastronomy presented by Guðni Rosenthal and Phil Jóhannesson:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the mention!

    Since the start of my Icelandic obsession a quarter century ago Icelandic women have been reliable and inspirational sources of information in my explorations of Icelandic culture. Having gotten to know many of them via print, music, online and in real life, they are truly "sprakkar." My previous provincial world view has been, due to their efforts, immeasurably expanded. Eliza is also one of the mainstays of the Iceland Writers Retreat, which I attended (virtually) in 2021, which offered far more than the usual literary tropes of such affairs.