Iceland’s Lessons for the #MeToo Era
The history of successful women’s protests show that mass mobilization is key.
On Thursday, thousands gathered at the U.S. Capitol to protest the possible confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault, as a member of the Supreme Court. In a sign of how divisive the Kavanaugh nomination has become, demonstrators were greeted not only by police, who arrested around 300 people, but also by signs female staffers posted in their Senate office windows: “We believe survivors.”
The protest against Kavanaugh was the latest upswell in a wave of women’s activism that started with the Women’s March in 2017—the largest single-day mass action in U.S. history, with as many as 5 million marchers participating on every continent—followed quickly by the explosion of the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment and assault, which engaged millions more. Today, one year after the #MeToo movement went viral online, women in nearly 100 countries are using the hashtag to fight violence, harassment, and discrimination.
Given that few laws have changed since the movement began, and since many high-profile figures who are apparently guilty of sexual assault and harassment have escaped punishment, it is fair to ask whether today’s women’s activism will achieve much of anything. But critics quick to dismiss recent protests would be wise not to underestimate the impact of such mass mobilizations. Around the world, protests of this nature have led to powerful political, economic, and social change for women.
Consider, for example, the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike, a watershed event that continues to inspire feminist organizers globally. On Oct. 24, 1975, women brought Iceland to a standstill by participating in Kvennafridagurinn, or the “Women’s Day Off” general strike. For 24 hours, they refused to do any paid or unpaid work in order to demonstrate women’s contributions to the economy. Shops closed, schools shut down, flights were canceled; there were no newspapers or phone service. Bewildered fathers brought their children to the office because no daycares were open. More than 25,000 women—10 percent of the entire Icelandic population—took to the streets of the capital.
The incontrovertible proof of the importance of women’s work “completely changed [our] way of thinking,” former Icelandic President Vigdis Finnbogadottir said in a 2015 interview. A year later, in 1976, the Icelandic parliament passed an Equal Rights Law. Five years later, the country voted in Finnbogadottir, the world’s first democratically elected female head of state. And since 2009, Iceland has held the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index. Not bad for a day off work.
In pulling off such a feat, Icelandic women had a couple of things going for them. With a population the size of Richmond, Virginia’s, strike organizers were able to reach almost every woman in the country directly through advertisements, newspaper columns, and workplace announcements. Their publicity campaign also drew on strong preexisting networks that had been built by an earlier women’s movement, and it capitalized on the fact that 1975 was the United Nations’ International Women’s Year gain legitimacy. And although critics are quick to claim that social movements often fail without limited and clear demands, Iceland’s striking example shows something else: Showing up in numbers too large to ignore can also be the start of a successful campaign for change.
The factors that made Iceland’s strike successful are hard to replicate. But that has not stopped other advocates from trying—and succeeding. Indeed, Iceland’s 1975 women’s strike still looms large in the minds of activists around the world. In 2016, for example, the Polish government considered a bill that would place further limits on already curtailed reproductive rights. Polish feminists, explicitly invoking Iceland, took to Facebook and Twitter to organize a nationwide strike. With less than two weeks’ notice, more than 100,000 women answered the call and participated in 143 “Black Monday” strikes across the country. The response shocked the press—and the Parliament. Just days later, the politicians who had championed the bill backed down, and Parliament overwhelmingly rejected it, 352 to 58.
Argentina’s ongoing #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) movement has also drawn inspiration from the tactics employed by organizers in Iceland. After having to cover near-daily stories of women and girls murdered by their partners, female journalists created the hashtag to draw attention to femicide. They also called for a demonstration in Buenos Aires, and weeks later, more than 200,000 people turned out in the capital, joined by protests and marches across Argentina. The following year, #NiUnaMenos activists helped organize a women’s strike with more than 300,000 participants. The mass mobilization has pushed the Argentine government to close legal loopholes and enforce existing law related to violence against women, including by creating a government help line for victims.
As in Iceland, activists in Poland and Argentina drew on longstanding networks in the women’s movement and called for mass action that would not just engage the public, but also grind it to a halt. These modern efforts did not just copy the Icelandic model, though, but modernized it through the power of globally networked activism. The affordability and access of electronic communication and social media allows for spontaneous, transnational organizing that did not exist during prior iterations of the global women’s movement—or even during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Emboldened by these historic campaigns, women activists are now organizing online to bring people together in a way and at a scale never seen before. Indeed, what started online with the #MeToo hashtag has already sparked a widespread cultural reckoning in the West, with global implications for women’s participation in the private sector and public life. Whereas suffrage marches took months or even years of planning in the early 20th century, today’s women’s movement can mobilize millions in a matter of weeks or even days.
Although online organizing is far from a magic bullet—it leaves out those unconnected to the internet and it opens women to new forms of harassment—the speed and reach of digital activism means that the current iteration of the global women’s movement has already touched far more women and men than any other.
Like any emerging campaign seeking lasting political and social change, the #MeToo movement faces real challenges. Without a centralized strategy or specific goals, it risks being another example of fleeting protest, destined to be forgotten alongside other “hashtag activism” campaigns. However, our work on how new technology can power modern social movements suggests that this moment may mark a fundamental shift in how women organize to fight for equality. And while naysayers wring their hands, activists are winning—from forcing investigations of Supreme Court nominees to the firings of high-profile public figures.
Four decades after the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike, it continues to provide a touchstone for activists at home and abroad. “We say in Iceland, ‘The steps so quickly fill up with snow,’ meaning there is a tendency to consign things to history,” Finnbogadottir said in a recent interview, “But we still talk about that day.” And much like in Iceland, women in Argentina and Poland are determined to move from protest in the streets to holding the highest positions of political power.
A generation of emerging American female leaders may also come to look at the #MeToo moment the same way Icelanders see the women’s strike. Much as Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment and testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas triggered a historic number of women running for Congress and winning in 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” 2018 is poised to bring another breakthrough, with an unprecedented number of diverse female candidates on both sides of the aisle running for office in November. Whatever the outcomes of this week’s Supreme Court protests, the mass mobilization of women is already changing the culture.
Meighan Stone is a senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former president of 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai's Malala Fund
Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.