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1975 strike: When 90% of women took the day off to protest gender inequality, shutting down Iceland

Kvennafrídagurinn (Women's Day Off) saw women refuse to work, look after children or cook, leaving men struggling to cope.

1975 strike: When 90% of women took the day off to protest gender inequality, shutting down Iceland
Activists stand with a banner reading 'Equality' at a demonstration calling for the legalization of the Anti-Discrimination Bill, London, England, 28th June 1973. (Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has overruled Roe v. Wade, confirming abortion is not a federal constitutional right anymore, women are seething with anger at unelected officials making decisions that revoke the body autonomy of those who give birth. Shortly after the court made the decision, women took to the streets to protest the decision. The anger was palpable outside the Supreme Court. Mass protests like these can make a difference. One of the most historic strikes carried out by women, in Iceland on October 24, 1974, changed an entire country for the better. The gender wage gap in Iceland was hugely disproportionate, with women being paid less than 60% of what men earned, reported IcelandMag. On that day, more than 90% of Icelandic women took to the streets, refusing to work, look after children or cook. The result: an entire economy paralyzed. The strike, or Kvennafrídagurinn (Women's Day Off), to repair the gender wage gap would be one of the most successful in history, and it served as a reminder of how integral women are to society and how they are undervalued both at work and at home. 



Men struggled to do housework, take care of kids
Businesses, government offices, schools and nurseries were all shut down. Fathers were left with no choice but to look after their children, feed them and take them to work. Stores ran out of foods that needed just boiling such as sausages and hot dogs because that was what men were cooking up in the absence of women. The following day, local newspapers ran stories about men being "forced" to do the dishes for the first time in their lives. There was also a surge in men buying coloring pencils and sweets to keep their children entertained and pacified at their workplaces. Men, who had always relied on women to do house chores and take of children were struggling to cope and the day never seemed to end, earning the day its other nickname—the Long Friday. It radically changed the perception of what women were capable of and it influenced the younger generation heavily. Within six years of the strike, Iceland had its first woman president—Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother. Vigdis would be the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state, reported BBC News.


Watershed moment for women's emancipation

Today it is known in Iceland as the Women's Day Off. Vigdis believes the strike proved to be a watershed moment for the country. "What happened that day was the first step for women's emancipation in Iceland," she said. "It completely paralyzed the country and opened the eyes of many men. We heard children playing in the background while the newsreaders read the news on the radio, it was a great thing to listen to, knowing that the men had to take care of everything," recalled Vigdis. Radio presenters made calls to households in all parts of the country to find out how men were coping and if women had chosen to strike even in rural areas. In almost all cases, the phones were answered by husbands who stayed home to take care of the children. Vigdis was one of the thousands of women in Reykjavik's Downtown Square, the largest protest of more than 20 more across the country. She was accompanied by her mother and her 3-year-old daughter. At the time, she was the artistic director of the Reykjavik Theatre Company and abandoned dress rehearsals to participate in the strike. "There was a tremendous power in it all and a great feeling of solidarity and strength among all those women standing on the square in the sunshine," said Vigdis.


Women's Day Off

It was a radical women's movement called Red Stockings that proposed a strike in 1970. Many women felt it was too confrontational. "The Red Stockings movement had caused quite a stir already for their attack against traditional views of women—especially among older generations of women whom had tried to master the art of being a perfect housewife and homemaker," says Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir, senior lecturer in history at the University of Iceland. The movement renamed the strike as "Women's Day Off" and everyone was on board. The strike was also backed by the unions. "The program of the event itself reflected the emphasis that had been placed on uniting women from all social and political backgrounds," recalled Ragnheidur.


The strike would change public opinion overnight and set the ball rolling for passing a law banning wage discrimination on the basis of gender in 1976. The year 1975 had been declared the International Women's Year by the United Nations. The Supreme Court overruling Roe v. Wade is already seeing protests across the country. President Joe Biden urged protesters to keep their protests peaceful even as the government had snipers on the roof of the Supreme Court with their guns trained on protesters all day. Despite having control of the House and Senate, Democrats are yet to make any meaningful progress to codify Roe v. Wade or expand the Supreme Court.  



"This fall, Roe is on the ballot," said Biden, reported CNN. "The right to privacy, liberty, equality — they're all on the ballot. Until then, I will do all in my power to protect a woman's right in states where they will face the consequences of today's decision." Patricia Smith, a 24-year-old abortion rights supporter, was at the Supreme Court to protest the ruling hit out at Democrats. “They can ask for votes for more power but don’t they already have the Congress and the White House?” said Smith. “They have not been able to pass much in terms of legislation despite the power, so what is the point?” One of the prominent chants ringing around in protests was aimed at Democrats: "Democrats we call your bluff, voting blue is not enough.”


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