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Never before seen levels of political Bad-Assery!

2011 August 25

I wrote previously for BadRep on how I’m disappointed by most female politicians who have held the top UK posts: while some of the less senior MPs have been great, titles such as “Home Secretary” seem to magically transform people overnight. It’s like Downing Street has a cellar with a Mad Scientist in it, and his lightning machine is nearly ready. You keep expecting David Cameron to turn up to work with a brain in a jar of green liquid, and announce that it’s the new Minister for Equality. We’re hoping for a female politician who will lift the image of women in power, and instead we get Nadine Dorries explaining how they called her mad, those fools at the Academy, but she’ll show them – she’ll show them all, or Louise Mensch saying we should shut down twitter and facebook during any riots.

In fact, responding to the recent London riots, current Home Secretary Theresa May said

We must never forget that the only cause of a crime is a criminal.

Given that she’s in charge of our systems to punish people and deter them from crime, she really ought to have a knowledge of the obvious pressures which make people commit it. In other words, that quote is the opposite of her job, and kinda shows she’s unfit for the post. (Also: it’s grammatically rubbish. A cause acts on a person; it can be anything except the person. Pick one! Just not the person.) Either way it’s not doing great things for the image of women in politics.

There are more women in governments globally than ever before, but whether politically left or right very few of them are behaving any differently to the men. That’s often understandable, since women at the very top are usually under double the scrutiny for any appearance of being “weak” or unsuitable.

Official Portrait of Johanna Sigurdardottir, courtesy of the Icelandic government and taken from Wikipedia, shared under Fair Use guidelines. A middle-aged, smart looking caucasian woman with pale blonde hair, glasses and red lipstick poses in a black v-neck jacketOne person I totally missed out from my previous post (which was particularly unforgivable given her kickass achievements) was Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the Prime Minister of Iceland. She is certainly overseeing a country that is doing things very differently, and in terms of democracy also Doing It Very Right. When you see the massive extent of what’s actually going on, you’ll be amazed (bear with me, there’s some politics coming up but pretty soon we get to the flying-shark-pirate-feminist adventures! I’m not kidding, this is epic.)

The World works a certain way when countries get into debt. The International Monetary Fund turns up, tells them to privatise everything and allow foreign investors to buy it all cheap, and refuses to give out any money for loans if they don’t. (I’m simplifying here, but… wait, no I’m not.) Everyone who is still rich agrees that this is the way to go. If you try something different, you will suffer the wrath of many governments, banks and newspapers.

Iceland said no. In fact, as this excellent article points out, they had a revolution and threw out their government, which is pretty much the gold standard for saying no.

Weeks of protests and riots forced them to hold elections, and the new Government decided not to put the entire population into debt for decades by bailing out the banks. They held a referendum and 93% of the people thought they’d rather have Interpol arrest the bankers responsible instead, please. Oh, and they’re having a new Constitution, written by the public.

To write the new constitution, the people of Iceland elected twenty-five citizens from among 522 adults not belonging to any political party but recommended by at least thirty citizens. This document was not the work of a handful of politicians, but was written on the internet. The constituents’ meetings are streamed on-line, and citizens can send their comments and suggestions, witnessing the document as it takes shape.

Did you know any of this? Did you know there’s a country in Europe who threw out their government through the power of protest, elected a left-wing coalition who then asked the public what they wanted, started writing new rules with complete visibility to anyone on the net, and stood up to the banks and IMF? Because I didn’t see the headlines.

As well as being the first openly-gay head of Government in recent times (and one of the first people in Iceland to fully marry her same-sex partner instead of a civil union), Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is presiding as Prime Minister over one of the gutsiest, brass-badass, openly-defiant movements in the world. A referendum? Putting decisions in the hands of the public? None of that is ever allowed on choices which actually matter. As a friend of mine put it when she read the article: “Iceland, you rockstar “.

Feminists keep waiting for a woman in power to act in a way which differentiates her from the men. Other than being physically seen in the front row (which DOES make a difference), there’s not a lot of point getting a woman in office if she’s then invisible among the grey old guys. I’m not saying that women will govern differently just because they’re women (what? With feelings, while wearing pink? What exactly is supposed to be automatically different?) but Iceland’s Prime Minister is restoring democracy by definition – she’s giving the votes back to the people. Her government is one of the very few even considering going up against the demands of the US, UK, Europe, Asia… everybody. Whether she’s left- or right-wing doesn’t decide if she’s politically great, it’s listening to the views of her country and standing fast against furious demands from Big Money that makes her really quite awesome.

At the moment she is at the front of a government which is trying the first truly different moves in years, and finally we can see a female politician who will be famous for being liberal, fair, in touch with the public and a titanium-plated Badass in the face of pressure. By getting the people to write the new Constitution, she is directly giving a voice to the women of her country. Equal voting rights is crucial, but if that vote only affected things once every four years, and none of the parties offered what 93% of the population want, then the actual power of it would be somewhat lessened. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s government is handing votes back to ordinary women and men and that’s amazing. The views of the whole population will be represented, with public debates via internet along the way.

Is increased democracy feminist? Do the majority of the public hold prejudices, and will their opinions harm women? Or by including more women, do you ensure they won’t vote against their own interests? Is it at least better than a rich, white, male elite doing all the decision-making?

In this case I’m not saying that Iceland’s policies being lefty is for the best, or that their referendum result is the correct one. After all, it might involve the UK not getting all its money back (although an article she wrote in April suggests we’ll see at least 90%). Whether the decisions are good or bad, there is a powerful, articulate woman right at the top of an incredibly exciting political force right now.

I’d just like to ask if we can have Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir over here on an exchange program for a bit please? We’ll lend Iceland Theresa May in return, it’ll be fine.


Since the article which brought this to our attention did the rounds online, it’s become clear that several key parts in it aren’t totally… well… accurate. At all.

Some of it is small in terms of the story: Iceland isn’t a member of the EU yet, it’s applying to join. And it didn’t go completely bankrupt, merely under lots and lots of debt.

The part about the new constitution being visible and people being able to send comments in as it goes – that one’s real, and that’s a major factor for us being excited. And regardless of whether Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was instrumental in bringing any of these changes about, or was initially for or against them, our point is that she’s being seen by the world as the PM at the head of a government which is taking huge steps. If she wasn’t in favour of all the changes, she still retains double BadAss points for defending them so stongly as the official policy now.

Many thanks to commenter latentexistence and others who have helped point out where the inaccuracies lie: we stand by our cheering of the Prime Minister, but warn our readers to take the linked article with a metric ton of salt.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. August 25, 2011

    I don’t think anyone could even imagine a PM cooler than Sigurðardóttir.

    Also, from the numbers in that quote you get a sense of how small Iceland must be.

    • August 26, 2011

      Yep, the entire population of Iceland fits in a single (small) phonebook – and are listed in order of first name! :D Fair play to them, I dare say they were in a situation where they had little to lose by starting from scratch.

  2. August 25, 2011

    Shining example from Iceland and Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir; if handled properly one can believe that the population of larger countries could rise up against the banksters in that fashion, certainly there are enough who are angry at their actions. Then again, the population of Iceland is only about half a million, it’s on average more educated than that of Britain, and over there they don’t have the equivalent of the Murdoch press or the Daily Mail.

    But what have the Icelanders done wrong to merit our lending them Theresa May?

    • Russell permalink
      August 25, 2011

      I suspect it’s not so much what the Icelanders have done wrong as hoping they can fix the problem of Theresa May.

  3. Michelle permalink
    August 25, 2011

    You know, the more I read about Iceland, the more I want to emigrate there. An openly lesbian PM, a sex industry in tatters and now telling the bankers what to do with themselves. And not having an equivalent of Murdoch or the Daily Mail….. sounds like my idea of paradise.

  4. Tim Macdonald permalink
    August 26, 2011

    This article is somewhat misleading. While the crowdsourced constitution is pretty much awesome, you can’t credit Jóhanna* with refusing to reimburse the UK and the Netherlands. Her government tried twice to legislate for a payback deal, but both times the President (Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson) used his veto, triggering a referendum. After the second No vote, Jóhanna said “the worst option was chosen”.

    See here for a more detailed overview:

    *Icelanders don’t have surnames as we understand them. “Sigurðardóttir” is a patronym and wouldn’t be used on its own. They call people by their first names even in formal contexts.

    • Stephen B permalink
      August 26, 2011

      Thank you for this!

      While she didn’t choose it, she certainly seems to be defending it hard now (as in the article linked to towards the bottom), but that’s good to know her initial stance. Also, thank you for the info on Icelanders using first names even for formal situations, I had no idea!

  5. Tasha permalink
    August 26, 2011

    Iceland had a similar reaction when Christianity swept through Europe. They asked the oldest, wisest and most respected man to decide. He sat in a tent for 24 hours and decided that the official religion should be Christianity, but that everyone was free to worship whoever and whatever they wanted.

  6. August 26, 2011

    > Iceland said no. In fact, as this excellent article points out, they had a revolution and threw > out their government, which is pretty much the gold standard for saying no.

    The first paragraph of that “excellent article” says that Iceland is a member of the European Union. Iceland is not in the EU and has only recently applied to join the EU.

    I doubt the accuracy of that article if they can’t even get basic fact checking right.

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 26, 2011

      Yes, the EU thing definitely is a bit of a clunker as one of the big discussions has been Iceland’s possible entry into the EU.

      But I think that Johanna is a good thing, on balance, from what I can see. Even just from a very basic stance of women’s-higher level-visibility-in-politics on the left.

      The Mail has warbled on about her as “a former air hostess” somewhat predictably.

  7. August 27, 2011

    “What exactly is supposed to be automatically different?”

    Well, one difference between women and men is that is usually women that are left to do care work often for free, in fact this work is often not recognized as such. When someone spends their time caring for others it tends to change their outlook. Contrast this with the extreme individualist gung-ho Patrick Bateman-esque attitude of the boardroom and that type of “professional” work and there’s a difference there I think.

  8. August 29, 2011

    There are more horses in Iceland than people.

    This makes is a lot easier to manage than a country with 70 million.

  9. September 5, 2011

    Nothing MAKES people commit crime, they CHOOSE to do it. Theresa May is absolutely right.

    Iceland has a population of just over 310,000 people, just slightly more than the city of Southampton – very easy to try out new ideas.

  10. Stephen B permalink
    September 6, 2011

    To all the people saying Iceland’s population is small, does that mean the UK is too big to have a functioning democracy? Is that an justifiable excuse? :)

    And as the writer of the article, obviously I disagree with “Git” above. If you can’t see how some people might not have a *choice* about committing crime, you haven’t been poor enough. A statement like “the ONLY cause is a criminal” doesn’t cover the huge pressures which influence people to make those choices, and I can’t get behind that. Sure, some do it because they’ve no conscience or just want to steal stuff. I don’t believe a responsible government labels everyone in terms that black and white.

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