Laura Yuen
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I shouldn't have been surprised when my conversation with Eliza Reid, the first lady of Iceland, ran the gamut from her thoughts on government-subsidized child care to the indisputable fact that Ryan Reynolds is indeed Canadian.

Reid artfully weaves incisive, relatable observations into her impressive new book on gender equality, "Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland's Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World." (Sprakkar is an old Icelandic word for outstanding women and Reid interviews plenty of them.) It's an accessible, highly personal read, sprinkled with Reid's smarts and self-deprecating wit.

“Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World” by Eliza Reid
“Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World” by Eliza Reid

The 46-year-old journalist and entrepreneur, who grew up on a hobby farm in Canada, never imagined that one day she would be married to a head of state. While studying at Oxford University, Reid was smitten with a fellow graduate student from Iceland. Before long, she proposed to him — and years later, in 2016, the historian she married, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, was elected president.

Reid, who birthed four children in six years and also has an adult stepdaughter, credits much of her success in her personal and professional life to tiny Iceland's generous programs that support women and families. The World Economic Forum has ranked the country No. 1 in closing the gap in equality between men and women — for 12 years in a row. In 1980, Iceland elected the world's first female president. It became the first country to require companies to prove they are paying women equally to men.

Reid, who spoke to me by phone while on her stateside book tour, will appear Wednesday at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Here's an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Did being an outsider help you see Iceland's unique commitment to gender equality?

A: Even though I grew up in Canada, which has a strong social support network, there were some facets of it which I wasn't used to but are seen as absolutely commonplace in Iceland, such as very subsidized child care. Their supports are so ingrained in society now that there are never any debates about whether something like subsidized child care or expensive parental leave are worthwhile. People might debate on how to do it, but no one is trying to cut back on it.

Q: In Iceland, fathers are expected to take paid parental leave as well as mothers. How did that help shape your husband as a dad?

A: He has an interesting story because he had a child in 1994, before there was parental leave for fathers as well, so he was able to experience both sides. My sense was he valued it very much. He took several months of leave with all of our children, and I can see now that he has a strong, close relationship with them.

I'm away on a 12-day trip. My husband is looking after them. He knows just as well when their soccer practices are, when their band concerts are, and if it's Pajama Day at school. Lots of studies show what a strong bond is built between fathers and children when they take the parental leave.

Q: I laughed out loud reading about what you call "Small Nation Complex" in Iceland because it reminded me so much of Minnesota. How would you characterize it?

A: I feel like I suffer from it both as a Canadian and as an Icelander. If there's a Canadian actor on an American TV series, we can't stop mentioning that they're Canadian. Every time a movie comes on, I'll say, "Oh, Ryan Reynolds is Canadian." My kids, who've grown up in Iceland, are like, "We know, Mom, you have mentioned that, thank you very much."

Q: I actually didn't know Ryan Reynolds was Canadian.

A: Well, you just have to hang out with a Canadian for a while. He's absolutely Canadian. I won't take up the whole interview time with that.

Q: It's OK — I write for the lifestyle section.

A: I'll have to give you another: Sandra Oh. She's from Ottawa, my hometown. I have this affection for Small Nation Complex, but I think it also kind of belies a sort of insecurity, that you need international validation that what you're doing is the right thing.

Q: Does it also create blind spots? We Minnesotans like to boast we're No. 1, but that sense of exceptionalism can blind us to the work we still need to do.

A: In Iceland, when it comes to gender equality, it's something we're almost hyper-aware of. Sometimes people say, "Oh, you're gender paradise, it's so perfect there." And we always say, "but, but, but." I don't think there's any person in Iceland who would say that we can stop being vigilant. The pandemic increased the number of years that the World Economic Forum estimates it's going to take to reach global gender parity — by an entire generation, or 35 years. Cases of domestic violence increased during the pandemic in Iceland.

Q: Why do you think Iceland has been more driven than the United States to make these reforms toward gender equality?

A: We have an advantage because we're a small country. We have a feeling that each person really makes a difference. It also helps us to measure success quickly. All the statistics show us that working toward gender equality is better for society. The more gender-equal a society is, the longer-living its population is, the more peaceful it is, the happier it is. But what I'm also trying to say with the book is that it's not all down to government-led, top-down policies.

Q: How can everyday people work for gender equality?

A: Are we cheering on our female athletes as much as we're cheering on our men? Are we reading books by women as much as books by men? Are we going to movies that feature women as much as men? Are we hiring equally? Are we being diverse in our representation? Are we speaking up for people?

Q: What do you think about the possibility that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned and abortion will be banned or severely restricted in many states?

A: It's a little strange for me, to be honest, to be right now in a country where this single issue is such a hot-button issue, because I've always lived somewhere where it's just another health care matter. But I think anywhere in the world where women's rights may be taken away is regrettable.

Q: What advice do you have for women seeking to achieve some kind of balance in their careers and personal lives?

A: I speak from an incredible place of privilege — but nobody can have it all. There is some kind of expectation of women, that they're supposed to have perfect, beautiful families, a fulfilling and challenging job, a perfectly tidy household, a loving partner and a fantastic sex life, and they're super skinny, and they run marathons. I don't care how privileged you are, no one can do all of those. For me, the matter lies in acknowledging what we can't achieve, and letting that go.

If you go

Eliza Reid will be appearing at a talk 1-2 p.m. Wednesday at the American Swedish Institute. Cost is $15 ($10 for ASI members).