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Social Design in Action for Women’s Equality

At DSI, we teach students to lead social change. They use this in careers that address human health, poverty, food systems, environmental issues, equity and justice. The curriculum teaches the principles, process and skills of social design, and most importantly, provides them with experience practicing it. We were delighted to present a historic example of social design on Jan. 10.

“We think what the women of Iceland accomplished is a brilliant story of social design — an intentional plan to redesign a society to be more just and equitable,” said DSI chair Cheryl Heller.

A single event helped transform Icelandic women’s reality, she said. That event, of course, was The Long Friday.

In 1975, 90 percent of the women in Iceland went on strike. They left their offices and their homes. Flights didn’t take off. Newspapers didn’t print.

Among the women in the crowd were Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir and Gudrún Hallgrímsdóttir, two of the strike’s organizers from the feminist organization the Redstockings.
In the SVA Theatre in New York City, Elísabet and Gudrún addressed an audience of about 200 people as part of “The Long Friday,” a DSI event that featured a screening of the titular documentary-in-progress by director Pamela Hogan, followed by a discussion about the fight for women’s rights. The conversation was led by DSI faculty and alumna Caroline McAndrews.

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“You must have a choice; that is what we are fighting for,” Gudrún said, looking out to the women listening to her story of advocacy.

She was speaking about a woman’s right to decide who and what she wants to be.

Because of the Redstockings’ fight for political representation and their mobilization of thousands of women, the first-ever democratically elected female president was voted into office. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir led Iceland from 1980 to 1996 — she was re-elected three times.

Gudrún said that seeing a female president in office affirmed to young girls that they could pursue their own passions. Societal role models for women are crucial, she explained. Children should be able to know women in positions of power and think, “I can do that, too.”

The feminist movement of the 1970s didn’t affect only Iceland, Elísabet noted. Western countries, including the US, were also part of the second-wave movement that focused on equality in politics and the workplace.

But Iceland’s story looks different from that of the United States’: Where Iceland ranks first in gender equality, the US sits at 49th. Where Iceland elected their first female president in 1980, the US has yet to elect a female president, and ranks 104th in equal representation in government — tied with Saudi Arabia.

Audience members asked the Elísabet and Gudrún how they were able to so drastically change their country.

The Redstockings worked hard, the women answered, incorporating humor, wit and creativity into their action plans. Feminists utilized their networks, Elísabet said, and they included women of varying classes and political affiliations in their mission and demonstrations.

”I think it is very important to reach every level of society,” she said.

The Long Friday strike was designed to show that without women working in their fields, or working in their homes, Icelandic society wouldn’t be able to function.

“The main issue of the strike was to show, to emphasize, the importance of our work (the work of the women in Iceland) for society,” Elísabet said.

Before women flooded the streets in Reykjavík, Gudrún said she was unsure if the strike would be successful. When it was clear that the Redstockings’ efforts had actualized, and the streets were packed with women carrying flags and banners and their babies, she was overcome with emotion.

“I must admit, I got tears in my eyes,” she said.

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The story of the Icelandic feminist movement caught Hogan’s attention when she visited the country and saw a snippet of the story in a guidebook. After searching for a documentary about “The Long Friday,” and realizing that none existed, she decided to pursue the project.

The women Hogan met were smart and funny. She recognized their tenacity.

“Sometimes a story just captures you,” she said.

Why is it important to make this film now? McAndrews asked Hogan.

”Women’s history is often left aside,” Hogan replied. And women’s stories are important to tell. “This is the moment.”

136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 592–2205

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