When Women Win Elections, Does Everyone Win?

April 20, 2018


What pops into your head when someone mentions Iceland, that beautiful island nation in the North Atlantic? That it’s a land of creeping glaciers, erupting volcanoes, spitting geysers, and snowy mountains? That it’s a place that is increasingly popular today as a tourist destination?

All true, but that’s not all there is to know about Iceland. Since 1980, when it elected its first female president, Iceland has become a real- life laboratory providing proof that electing women to public office radically improves the life of women and families. That pivotal election 38 years ago, says The Guardian newspaper, “set off a domino effect that turned it into one of the most egalitarian countries” in the world.

Nine times now, Iceland has been ranked the most gender equal country in the world by the World Economic Forum. The Economist newspaper recently named it the world’s best place for working women.

When women win elections, it appears, everyone wins.

After Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected Iceland’s president in 1980, female political participation in Iceland spiraled, and large numbers of women were elected to parliament and to local offices. Suddenly, parental leave, daycare, and the gender pay gap were on the agenda.

By the 1990s, full- time, highly subsidized daycare became available in Iceland for all children aged two and older. In 2000, when a third of members of parliament were women, a new law introduced a nine-month parental leave, which gave both mothers and fathers three months of paid leave each, plus an additional three months to split between them.

“It changed society overnight,” Olafur Stephensen, secretary general of the Icelandic Federation of Trade and a father of two, told The Guardian. (Remember that the United States is the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t provide guaranteed parental leave.)

It’s not a total success story in Iceland. The gender pay gap is still about 16 percent; although, this is a bit better than the 18 percent gap in the United States.

Still, since 2000, new laws have been introduced in Iceland mandating quotas for women on company boards, a ban on strip clubs and the purchase of sex, the removal of perpetrators of domestic violence from the family, and “a recent push to make employers prove equal pay.”

Since Reykjavik’s (Iceland’s capital) first female chief of police was appointed in 2014, she has made violence against women and girls a priority. In 2016, the country— briefly— attained gender parity in parliament.

By contrast, after the 2016 election in the United States, we dropped from 52nd to a bleak 104th in the world for women’s political representation. For every woman in political office today in the U. S., there are three men.

In 2018, women in the U. S. hold just 19.6 percent of seats in the U. S. House of Representatives and only 22 percent in the U. S. Senate. (Note: South Carolina’s current Congressional delegation is all- male.) Just 25 percent of seats nationwide in state legislatures are held by women. (Also note: in South Carolina, the situation is even more dismal. Only 15.9 percent of South Carolina’s state legislators are female, which ranks us 44th in the country.)

I have my fingers crossed, however, that things may change in 2018, after the mid- term elections.

As of early April, at least 548 women (424 Democrats, 124 Republicans) have filed to run for the U. S. House— nearly three times as many women as in 2016. On the Senate side, an incredible 50 women are running or likely to run, twice the number as in 2016.

Large numbers of women have also filed to run for seats in the state legislatures and for local offices, too.

Enthusiasm is high. Will these women help the big U. S. catch up with little Iceland (population 350,000) in so many areas that are important to women and families? We’ll see in November.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).