Profile: World’s first lesbian Prime Minister’s slow rise to power

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

When it was announced earlier this week that Johanna Sigurdardottir was likely to be appointed prime minister, little did Icelanders realise that their small island would be making history.

If, as expected, she is confirmed as interim head of government later today, she will be the first openly gay person to do so. Not in Iceland, in the world.

A gay man did act as prime minister of Norway, but only for a matter of hours.

As head of a new left-green government, she should remain in office until elections in May.

When Visir, an Icelandic website, published a short article about how she could become the first openly lesbian head of government, the common response was annoyance towards that website for “making a big deal” out of such a non-issue as her sexuality.

A country of only 300.000 with a gay scene that is largely embedded into mainstream culture, Iceland is considered one of the safest places in the world to be gay.

Because of its small size Reykjavik’s gay scene co-exists to a greater extent within mainstream nightlife than in Britain and the rest of Europe.

This is one reason why the Icelandic gay scene is so widely accepted as normal and a non-issue by the public.

Born in October 1942 it is fair to assume that Ms Sigurdardottir had a political upbringing. Her father served in the Icelandic parliament for the Social Democratic Party between 1959 – 1971 and was chairman of the civil service union.

It should also be noted that Sigurdardottir’s family played a key role rise of trade unions in Iceland, her grandfather was one of the founders of Dagsbrun, the largest workers union in Iceland, and her grandmother served on the board of Framsokn the female-workers union.

In 1960 Ms Sigurdardottir graduated from The Commercial College, a private college funded by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, a highly respect institution but also considered the breading ground for the Conservative party.

After graduating she worked as an air hostess for Loftleiðir (now Icelandair ) and later as an office worker at a box factory.

From early on in her professional life she was active within the trade union movement and served on the board of the Icelandic Cabin Crew Association in 1966 and 1969 and on the board of Svolurnar, the Association of Former Stewardesses, in 1975.

She was also a member of the Board of the Commercial Workers Union from 1976 to 1983.

In 1978 Ms Sigurdardottir was elected to Althingi (Icelandic parliament) for the Reykjavik constituency and has held her seat since then.

A Social Democratic party MP, later she became the vice-chairman of the party and served as Minister of Social Affairs in four cabinets from 1987 – 1994.

Personal animosity between Ms Sigurdardottir and party leader Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson led to a breach.

Ms Sigurdardottir accused Mr Hannibalsson and the party of going against its fundamental principles of social equality at the expense of the most vulnerable in Icelandic society.

The dispute ended in a humiliating loss for Ms Sigurdardottir and eventually her resignation from the party.
She famously ended a speech with the words “my time will come” and walked out on the Social Democrats.

She then founded Thjodvaki (variously translated as “Awakening of the Nation” or the “National Movement”) a breakaway party.

During the 1994 election Thjodvaki played heavily on the “my time will come” theme. The phrase has haunted her political career ever since.

Thjodvaki managed to get 4 MP’s elected. The party was later credited as one of the stepping-stones in unifying the Icelandic political left.

After the 1994 elections it became apparent that the Icelandic left had become too scattered and would never stand a change of forming a government unless it would become more unified.

Ms Sigurdardottir and Thjodvaki became one of the founding parties of The Social Democratic alliance. The alliance was part of the coalition government that resigned en masse earlier this week. The alliance has been asked to form an interim government.

Ms Sigurdardottir, their choice for prime minister, is greatly respected by her colleagues, political opponents and the people.

She was recently voted the most trustworthy politician in Iceland with a 60% to 70% approval rating, despite serving in the government widely considered to be responsible for the financial meltdown.

The public knows her as someone that has strong and inflexible principles and an utter disdain for elitism and wastefulness.

She is remembered as the minister who refused to accept a personal chauffeur and a luxury car paid for by the public.

Instead images of her driving around in her tatty Mitsubishi endeared her to many Icelanders.

Ms Sigurdardottir is however strongly criticised for being difficult to work with and inflexible when it comes to negotiation.

This has proven difficult in a country where coalition government between two or more parties is the norm. She has also been criticised for not having enough understanding when it comes to reducing spending on social security.

This criticism has grown louder after she recently refused to accept any cutbacks in funding for any issues under the responsibility of the Ministry of Social affairs and Security despite what looks to become a record-breaking budget deficit.

Ms Sigurdardottir is also known for keeping her personal life out of the spotlight. She has never given interview about her sexuality or her personal life.

Her spouse is Jónína Leósdóttir a well known playwright, author and a journalist and the couple is registered in Iceland (the equivalent of a civil partnership).

Together they have three grown up children. She is described as as family oriented and especially close to her grandchildren, despite her busy career.

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