A profile of the first lesbian head of state


By Anna Jaffray


Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was born in 1942 in Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland with a population of 120,000. After college, Jóhanna became a flight attendant with Loftleioir, the precursor to Icelandair.  


Prior to her political career, Jóhanna, always the activist, was involved in the trade union movement from early on in her professional life, presiding over the Board of the Icelandic Cabin Crew Association in 1966 and 1969 and over the Board of Svölurnar, the Association of Former Stewardesses in 1975. She was also a member of the Board of the Commercial Workers’ Union from 1976 to 1983.  From her stance on trade unions and activism in worker’s rights, Jóhanna easily launched herself into the party of Social Democrats.  


Sigurðardóttir was voted into the Icelandic parliament in 1978 and has twice served as Iceland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Social Security from 1987–1994 and 2007–2009. During Sigurðardóttir’s time as Minister of Social Affairs, she is credited with pushing through policies that widened housing opportunities for Iceland’s poor and strengthened the social welfare system.


Sigurðardóttir was also one of the first married lesbian couples after the legalization of gay marriage in the Nordic country.  Sigurðardóttir’s wife, Jónína Leósdóttir, is an author and playwright.  Both are divorcees of heterosexual marriages, Sigurðardóttir with two children and Leósdóttir, with a child from her marriage.  Initially Sigurðardóttir and Leósdóttir were joined in civil union in 2002, but after gay marriage became legal in 2010, they transformed their union into a marriage and now care for their three children together.


There has been little controversy over the prime minister’s sexual orientation. Iceland de-criminalized same-sex activity in 1940, legalized same-sex unions in 1996, and marriage in 2002.  Many have credited Iceland’s neighborly culture and small population for its increased acceptance, but others have said that Icelanders just don’t care.  Iris Erlingsdottir, who writes for the Huffington post and is an Icelander herself, quoted her mother and father’s reaction to the appointment, “I don’t see what her sexual orientation has to do with anything. It’s no one’s business but her own.”  Particularly in the face of such unstable economic times, most Icelanders are more concerned with her political views than her sexual orientation.


The previous Prime Minister, Geir Haarde, was of the Independence party, the fisherman’s party, all “…men, men, men…” according to Michael Lewis’ book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.  The Social Democrats consist of mostly women.  After Iceland’s brutal financial crisis, the government of Iceland resigned under increasing pressure.  Prime Minister Geir Haarde resigned for health reasons, his successor, Independence Party Vice-Chairman Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, also resigned for health reasons.  Furthermore, the nation’s Commerce Minister, Björgvin G. Sigurðsson, resigned in January due to the massive financial crisis.  Prior to his resignation, he dismissed the director of the Financial Supervisory Authority, claiming responsibility for its failure.


In the face of so many resignations and increasing internal strife amongst Iceland’s citizens, Geir Haarde eventually delivered the government’s resignation to the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.  In the following days, the various parties of Iceland would work at creating a new government to replace the defunct government of Geir Haarde.  A coalition government of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement quickly formed on February 2nd 2009.  However the new Prime Minister would not come from any of the party leaders, but from Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, a senior member of the Social Democratic Alliance.  Jóhanna had been serving as the Minister of Social Affairs and Social Security and became the chairwoman of her party on March 28th, 2009.


In Michael Lewis’ book, he discusses the effects of the financial crisis on the power structure of Iceland.  It is believed by many that Jóhanna received the position because of the mishandling of the financial sector by the male-dominated Independence Party.  Lewis states, “The striking thing about the future the Icelandic male briefly imported was how much it resembled the past he celebrates.  I‘m betting now [that]they‘ve seen their false future the Icelandic female will have a great deal more to say about the actual one.”  In this he refers to the violent and heroic Sagas of ancient times, also male dominated and entirely based upon the epic battles of men of power.  


In September 2010, Geir Haarde was indicted on charges of negligence in office for his mismanagement of the financial crisis.


“Iceland is a small society, and the public knows what Sigurdardottir stands for as a politician, and that’s the only thing that is important,” said Frosti Jonsson, a spokesman for Iceland’s National Association of Queers. “Nowadays, not only does Iceland have one of the most progressive legal environments for gay people, there have also been changes in public attitudes towards gay people. It simply isn’t an issue anymore.”


Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

About The Author

I work for dot429 as an editorial intern and also for a dog daycare in Emeryville, CA. My dog's name is Kona, I play music, love to garden and write most of the time.

Send this to friend