First female president: Iceland’s Vigdis Finnbogadottir

The great land of the north was one of the pioneers in gender equality. While the British royal family worried about a male heir, and a handful of progressive American women were meeting in Seneca Falls, New York to debate the quirky idea of women’s suffrage, Iceland passed a law allowing for equality in inheritance rights for men and women. By the start of “the roaring 20s” that liberalized American women, their Icelandic counterparts could vote alongside the men with no restrictions. Before American women could fly planes in battle, and Icelandic woman became the leader of the country.

On this day, August 1, in 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected as the country’s president, the first for any woman in the world. She would go on to win re-elections in 1984 and again in 1988.

Unlike many other European and American high-level politicians, Finnbogadottir had virtually no background in politics and no military experience. But she did have a well-rounded education to prepare her: she was born in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, her father civil engineer and professor at the University of Iceland and her mother the chairman of the Icelandic Nurses Association for 36 years. Finnbogadottir served as a college professor teaching French, and spent a sabbatical year researching French-Icelandic relations. Her ties to Europe no doubt came in handy during her presidency.