In 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir made history when she was elected president of Iceland, serving as president until 1996. Although her margin of victory was small (only 33.8%, with the nearest of three rivals getting 32.2%), it was sufficient to make her the world's first female head of state elected by popular suffrage. As the powers of the president of Iceland are largely symbolic and ceremonial, the office did not provide her with much executive power. As an icon for women, her influence around the world has been considerable.
Of the four candidates for president in 1980, Finnbogadottir was the last to join the fray. The need for a female candidate was often mentioned as an argument in favor of her standing for president and she received the backing of many activists for women's rights. Because the outcomes of presidential elections in Iceland often turn on personalities rather than causes, it is difficult to connect her candidacy with any political grouping or issue, although women's rights were undoubtedly a factor.
When she stood for president, Finnbogadottir had not been active in traditional politics. During the campaign, some right-wing opponents tried to discredit her by drawing attention to her opposition to the NATO base in Keflavik. These attempts failed, and may even have resulted in a backlash, with left-wing voters moving from other candidates to support her. Attempts to highlight the fact that she was not married also failed to sway voters.
At the time of her election to the presidency, Iceland was easily the most backward of the Nordic countries with respect to women's political representation. There were only three women in the parliament, or 5% compared with 24—26% in the parliaments of the other Scandinavian countries. Within communal authorities, the figure was 6.1% compared with 17.7—29.3% in the other Nordic countries.
Iceland's presidents serve as cultural ambassadors and symbols of national unity, although the Icelandic constitution also requires that they sign into law all bills passed by the parliament (alFingi). No president has refused a signature to date, but Finnbogadottir came close. In 1985, the Icelandic government wished to implement a legislation against a strike by women flight attendants for Icelandair. This coincided with the ten-year anniversary of the women's national holiday in Iceland, October 24. Finnbogadottir wanted to postpone the signing of this bill, but was dissuaded.
Finnbogadottir is the only Icelandic president to have been forced into an election by a rival. This was in 1988 when she was opposed by Sigrun fiorsteins-dottir. The result was a landslide; 92.7% of the votes fell to Vigdis while the rival polled only 5.3%.
Having overcome cancer earlier in life, Finnbogadottir became the protector of the Icelandic Cancer Association. She was also a founder and patron of the "Save the Children" Association in Iceland. One of her last acts as president of Iceland was to fight prejudice against same-sex couples.
Finnbogadottir is arguably the most respected statesperson that Iceland has produced. After her retirement from presidency, she kept a high international profile, participating in many ethical, environmental, and linguistic projects for both UNESCO and the United Nations. She was made a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador of Languages in November 1998. She is also chairperson of the UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), of which the first session took place in Oslo in April 1999. She also chairs the Council of Women World Leaders, which was founded in 1997. In office, she was a keen spokesman for close ties between Iceland and its Arctic neighbors. In recognition of this, she was made the chairperson of the Committee for the development of a North-Atlantic harbor (Komiteen til Udviklingen af Den Nordatlantiske Brygge) in Copenhagen, a project designed to enhance cultural cooperation among Denmark and its former North-Atlantic colonies (Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands).
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