In 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the first democratically elected female head of state in the world, and was re-elected three times in 1984, 1988 and 1992. Born in Reykjavík in 1930, as a child she was determined to become a sea captain, but ended up following her passion for literature and theatre. She studied literature and drama at the University of Grenoble, the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Iceland. Back in Iceland she taught French and literature at the university, and participated in an experimental theatre group. Between 1972 to 1980 she served as director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company and participated in an experimental theatre group. As head of state, Vigdís took an active role in promoting Iceland, acting as a cultural ambassador and actively promoting conservation issues, youth education, and Iceland’s unique cultural heritage and language.
In this conversation with Kristof Magnusson, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir explains her love for avantgarde theatre and french literature, explains why as president she would plant exactly three trees everywhere she went, and also recalls the historical Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik in 1986.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was interviewed by the German-Icelandic author Kristof Magnusson.
On childhood ambitions
I was determined to be a captain, to sail abroad and see what Europe was like. What the world was like […] I was around ten. And they patted me on the head and said, ‘No, you can’t do that, dear, because you are a girl.’ […] That’s what people said then. ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ That’s why now, when I fly, and a woman’s voice comes on the microphone and says, ’Hello, this is Captain Sigríður Sigurðardóttir”, I just sit and laugh, because it’s so neat to have a woman pilot. Because I was told that I wasn’t able, because I was a girl. But yes, people were always talking about world affairs at my house, and during the war, for example, when I was ten or nine when it broke out – there was always a map on the wall of my father’s office. This is where we kept track of the war and its battle lines as they shifted. There was lots of discussion in my younger years about Europe and world culture in general.
On European identity
We have never, ever seen ourselves as anything other than Europeans. Our foundation, or the root of Icelandic history, lies in Europe. I remember that once, when I was at a meeting in Britain, a map of Europe was projected and Iceland was missing. I walked up to some very important Briton and pointed it out to him, ‘Have you noticed, Sir, that Iceland is missing from this map?’ He answered, “Yes, now that you mention it, I see that. I shall write to the Times!’ This was very strange; Iceland is always on the map of Europe.
On Iceland as island
Many artists also went to study in the United States and came home cosmopolitans, both in visual art and music. It was wonderful to get them back – bringing a broader perspective than our own […]. It’s important to remember, too, that we’re an island; we live on an island. So our border is the ocean. Back then, needless to say, there was no internet and such, so it was very important for us to cross the ocean and see what went on the other side. It was even more important, I think, than for people on the mainland.
About keeping Iceland close to Europe
Yes, I do, and I felt back then that Iceland did have cause [to enter a union with the EU]. Because that way Europe would stay open to Icelanders. I signed this [EFTA trade agreement] back then actually, attaching a comment, because I wanted Europe – the universities – to remain open to young people. If we had rejected this agreement back then, we would have gradually drifted, slowly and steadily, towards American universities. I was determined that Icelanders get Erasmus grants and the like to attend Europe’s universities, to maintain these European ties. We are Europeans with a cordial friendship with the United States. But I didn’t want to make us dependent on the United States, or for Europe to be closed to us. That was my thinking then and now.
On Iceland’s “Presidential” birch trees
The presidency hinges on understanding people. And when you’ve been in theatre, amid all these characters and discussions of human nature, it’s very helpful. To understand people is vital in an office like the Icelandic presidency, which is not a political one. The Icelandic presidency is about people, about having the people’s trust. To appear, and to be, the people’s symbol of union. That’s why I’m so glad that I realised early on that I needed to get the children involved, the youth. In those years Iceland was very dry, with a great deal of soil erosion; we used to say, ourselves, that our country was outright blowing away. And it occurred to me to enlist the children in binding the soil, planting trees. That was one of my most fortuitous ideas, because it was so delightful. I planted everywhere I went. People gave me sweaters, knitted for me, gave me lovely keepsakes whenever I visited people in the country. And I always went to the children, and always planted three trees. One for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the unborn children.