labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/ 2017- junho 2018 /juillet 2017-juin 2018

Sisterhood at all costs? Challenges of plurality in the Icelandic women’s movement

 Thorgerdur J. Einarsdóttir



While the chronology and the major gains of the women’s movement in Iceland are well documented, the internal frictions are under-researched until recently. Most studies point to a flat organization and consensus as the hallmark of the women’s movement. This gives rise to the question how conflicts have been addressed and managed within the movement. Ever since the early 20th century the women’s movement in Iceland has had a profound impact on societal agendas. With Iceland as a case example, the paper argues that disagreement is a sensitive issue in the women’s movement and the existence of substantive and political disputes have been a source of unease, embarrassment, or even taboo. Theoretically the paper draws on Chantal Mouffe’s account of agonistic pluralism, and the discussion is related to the sameness versus difference debate in feminist theory and practice as well as the meaning of structure. It is suggested that one of the reason for disagreements being problematic is the understated feminist imperative of women’s sisterhood at all costs, maintained by the everyday myth that internal disagreements, however small, reflect that “women are women’s worst enemies”. Against this background I explore cases of disagreements from the Icelandic Redstockings movement, operating from 1970 to 1982, and the Women’s Alliance, operating from 1983 to 1999.

Key-words: women’s movement, Iceland, agnostic pluralism.



In this matter, as in many others, it was clear that women in the movement had another understanding of issues, namely, that the majority doesn’t automatically have the right to force a conclusion upon the minority. This is why they often spend a long time discussing issues back and forth in an attempt to reach a consensus, and if that doesn’t work, then the conclusion is not to throw a spanner in the work for those who, based on their conviction, wish to go another way (Halldórsdóttir 1994, quoted in Jónsdóttir 2007, 140, own translation)    While the chronology and the major gains of the international women’s movement are well documented, internal frictions, tensions and disagreements have been somewhat down-toned and under-researched until recently. This article follows a shift in the scholarship in which disputes are given more space than previously.

In the quote above, Kristín Halldórsdóttir, a former member of parliament for the Icelandic Women’s Alliance (IS. Kvennalistinn), reflects on one of the first open disagreements within the group; a disagreement that was ‘settled’ in what can be conceptualised in Chantal Mouffe’s terms as a “temporary respite” (2000, 102) or a “conflictual consensus” (2005, 52). By this outcome a split was avoided in the movement. When Ferree and Hess chose “Controversy and coalition” as the title of their book on the US. women’s movement it was because they sensed

[…]that the women's movement was both divided into competing factions for whom “controversy” was central, but also characterized by common goals around which shifting coalitions were constantly emerging” (Ferree and Hess 2003, vi).

This combination of controversies and coalitions also applies to the women’s movement in Iceland which from the beginning has had visible societal impact in many respects. The Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, IWRA, which was established in 1907, had a direct and indirect impact. It mobilized a separate women’s list in the local elections in Reykjavík in 1908, and initiated the foundation of the first women’s union, Framsókn, in 1914, after women had been excluded from the male union, Dagsbrún (Erlendsdóttir 1993). While women’ unions were operated in several other countries, it may be seen as a sign of the tenacity of the women’s movement in Iceland that the most significant ones were operated until 1999 (Rafnsdóttir 1995). The same applies to separate women’s list in electoral politics which are not unique for Iceland, but their longevity and electoral success in Iceland is unique (Styrkarsdóttir 1998).  

Ever since the early 20th century the women’s movement in Iceland has been influenced by a complex historical legacy, which is at once an asset and a burden. Inherited socio-cultural values portraying women as independent, strong and powerful shape a continuity from the mythical Saga period in Iceland to the present. At the same time, this depiction restricts women’s agency as women often feel loyalty to the ‘strong-woman’ image. It can result in adaptation and acceptance of unacceptable situations, since to complain is to be defeated (Júlíusdóttir 1993). This alleged strength, factual or perceived, has complex ways been accompanied by gender binary and gendered trait assignments, supposedly rooted in natural differences. Hence, women and femininity have been linked to the private sphere, to peace, caring and motherhood. Men and masculinity have been associated with the public sphere, rationality and independence (Gústafsdóttir 2016). Not least has this been a source for ambiguities for the women’s movement which needs to be addressed and revalued.

The women’s movement in Iceland, as elsewhere, has time and again deployed woman-centered arguments. Hence, the IRWA justified women’s representation in public life in the early 20th century Iceland with reference to their feminine abilities in certain areas which they believed to be of significant importance for women. Women had a strong presence in social and public life at the time, especially through the separate women’s electoral lists (Styrkársdóttir 1998, Matthíasdóttir 2004). However, they had to walk a fine line in their attempt to combine maternalism and their claims to public presence, and sometimes failed. The existence of substantive and political disputes has been a sensitive issue in the women’s movement in Iceland, a source of unease, embarrassment, or even taboo. As pointed out by Ferree and Hess (2003) coalitions and the creation of unity are a necessary political tool and gives the women’s movement its strength. Controversy, on the other hand, gives life to a movement, and if we overlook it there is a danger that it “hides the diversity of who women really are and what they specifically need and want.” (2003, vii).

Against this background I explore cases of disagreement within two women’s movements in Iceland. First, the disagreement around the Redstockings’ adoption of a socialist manifesto in 1974, which abruptly drove away some of its active members. Second, I examine four disputes in the Women’s Alliance with main emphasis on a controversial decision in 1997 to merge with the left-wing parties prior to the national election 1999. These events gave rise to internal contentions, and in some cases accusations of betrayal and hurt feelings. I draw on Chantal Mouffe’s theorising on agonistic pluralism in an attempt to identify what lessons can be learned from this. I look into how the disagreements emerged, the underlying reasons for them, how a conclusion was reached, and how a re-conceptualization can open up for new possibilities for women and the women’s movement. The choice of my cases does not mean that they are the only disagreements. They may not even be seen as the most serious ones, if it is at all possible to view disagreements from that perspective. There are mainly two reasons for my choice.

First, these events are among the best documented in the history of the two movements, and therefore they provide insights into the dynamics in the movements. Among the sources are a memory book of the Redstockings pioneers, in which 12 women provide a personal account of the movement (Árnadóttir 2011), the history of the Women’s Alliance by Kristín Jónsdóttir (2007), and a website on the Women’s Alliance (, created and run by Jónsdóttir. Second, two of the disagreements, which can be seen as the most conspicuous ones, were concluded by voting, which was an exception in the both movements. To illuminate this, I discuss the Women’s Alliance most well-known controversy by juxtaposing it with disagreements that were mitigated, although not resolved.

In the following I start with establishing the Icelandic context for the study. I then flesh out my theoretical approach before I explore in more detail the manifestations of the two events and relate them to other research. Finally, in the concluding remarks I speculate on the lessons to be drawn for women and the feminist movement. The questions guiding my discussions are what have these disagreements meant for the women’s movement, and what the consequences have been. Furthermore, what is needed to reverse this historical legacy, and create a social and epistemic space for a more collaborative and consensual style of practice.

The Icelandic context

Women in Iceland have twice run special women’s lists in electoral politics; the early women’s lists operated from 1908 until 1926, and then again from 1982 until 1999. In both periods the lists have served as an icebreaker for women’s participation in politics, in addition to the impact they had on the content of the politics. The first women to get elected as city counsellors in Reykjavík in 1908 were from a women’s list (Styrkársdóttir 1998), and the first woman to be elected into the parliament, seven years after the suffrage, was elected from a women’s list in 1922 (Ástgeirsdóttir 2002).

After initial success in the early 20th century, with the right to higher education (1911), suffrage (1915) and some other civil rights (Erlendsdóttir 1993), the women’s movement in Iceland suffered a great defeat (Matthíasdóttir 2004). The movement had employed women-centered arguments strategically, and thus managed to push the envelope at the same time as it went along with the gender conservative zeitgeist. The women’s claim-making was rather moderate by the measure of our times, and they made special efforts not to be seen as aggressive. They wanted women to be recognized as participants within certain areas of public life where they believed their assumed feminine traits and qualities were needed and seen as valuable (Matthíasdóttir 2004; Einarsdóttir 2010).

But the woman-centred arguments came to backfire. The women’s claim for participation in public life was met with a strong resistance. Around 1930, the “housewife ideology”, an exaggerated and misrepresented rendering of women-centered views, had become predominant, and remained so for decades. The housewife ideology was used against the women’s movement by claiming that the future of the Icelandic nation was dependent on women’s role as mothers and housewives. Women’s participation in public life was considered to jeopardise not only their femininity and the homes, but also to be a threat to the Icelandic nation (Matthíasdóttir 2004). Despite their ambiguity, woman-centered arguments continued to be deployed by the women’s movement time and again, with considerable success (Matthíasdóttir & Einarsdóttir 2013). A remarkable recent example is the gender quotas on company boards that were legalised after the financial crisis in 2008. Arguments emphasizing the importance of women’s special capabilities for the profitability of the companies, and hence the well-being of society, were at the heart of the quota legislation (Axelsdóttir & Einarsdóttir 2017).

The controversies and the inherent tension between claims of full (gender-as-equal) citizenship and the women-centered (gender-as-difference) approach continue to create perplexities for the women’s movement. The historical narrative of women’s assumed capabilities such as being morally superior to men and more peaceful, is a tacit presupposition behind some well-known proverbial expressions in Iceland. The Icelandic aphorism from Brennu-Njáls saga “cold are the counsels of women”, is seen as illustrative of the ambience of medieval Iceland (Friðriksdóttir 2013). The saying only makes sense in the light of women’s presupposed virtuous nature in relation to men. Still more pronounced though is the widely used every-day myth “women are women’s worst enemies” (IS. konur eru konum verstar), indicating that when everything comes about women do not support other women. This has been a paralysing factor for the women’s movement because it has prevented women from expecting and dealing with differences and disagreements as ‘normal’ political issues. The ideological underpinnings of these sayings point to women being inherently sly or cunning. This invokes an understated feminist imperative of women’s sisterhood at all costs, fuelled by the threat that internal disagreements, however small, will be interpreted as “women are women’s worst enemies”.

I suggest that another important factor that may have contributed to the sensitivity around disagreements and conflicts in the women’s movement is the specific social and political climate in Iceland. In opposition to the Nordic political culture that has been depicted as consensual in style and practice, the Icelandic one is seen as adversarial, according to historian Guðmundur Jónsson (2014). This is manifested in long-standing and antagonistic relationships between the social partners, revealed in the highest labour market conflict and strikes in Europe (Jónsson 2014). This may have affected the women’s movement in Iceland, which has been engaged in electoral politics to a larger extend than the women’s movement in many other countries as mentioned above. In relation to new political parties in Iceland the longevity of the women’s electoral movement is remarkable. In 1983 the Women’s Alliance got 5.5% of the votes, it peaked in 1987 with 10% of the votes. However, it started declining in 1991 when it got 8.3% and in 1995 it got 4.9%, which was below the initial support in 1983 ( n.d.). During 1983 to 1999, 12 women were elected as members of parliament for the Women’s Alliance, and 17 substitutes (Vera 1999, 7). Thus, special women’s lists in the political arena have been a living history and an example for women in Iceland.

The underlying ideas of women as peaceful and virtuous are revealed in different guises in the 1980s, for example in relation to the founding of the women’s lists as electoral movement in 1982. The established parties saw this initiative as a severe threat, and the harshness of the political life was used to discourage the women to enter politics. At a meeting in the left-wing People’s Alliance in 1982 on women in politics, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, an influential member of parliament and later the president of Iceland, revealed the existing sentiment when he authoritatively warned

“[…]it was not enough to encourage women to be more active in politics, we would also have to make them understand that politics demanded more personal offerings, fight, brutality and stamina than people usually realise” (Jónsdóttir, 2007: 84-85; Ástgeirsdóttir 1981:8-9).

 In the quote he portrays women and politics as almost incompatible. Statements like this made things complicated for women when the Women’s Alliance later employed women-centered arguments as I will return to later.

Theoretical approach

My theoretical discussion is inspired by Chantal Mouffe’s theory on agonistic pluralism. But before introducing my theoretical perspective I will relate the discussion of the Icelandic cases to two issues that have been discussed extensively in feminist theory and activism; the sameness vs difference debate, and the significance of the organizational form in terms of hierarchy vs flat structure, and the consensus method of decision making.

Sameness vs difference. The women’s movement has for a long time dealt with ambiguities related to the almost incompatible tension between arguments of sameness (or gender equality) and difference (Cott, 1987; Vogt, 1991; Scott, 1996). On the one hand women have been seen as human beings while at the same time as they are seen as “different” human beings with specific qualities and social roles (Cott 1987). Feminism is a struggle for the rights of women on the same terms as men in the existing social structures, and at the same time the struggle to alter existing discriminating structures. Hence, women struggle against distinctions by sex while simultaneously grounding their fight on sex differences (Cott1987).

Joan W. Scott (1996) traces this dilemma back to the historical emergence of the political subject which was inherently male. The sameness-difference paradox was recognised already by Olympe de Gouges, Scott contends. Women denied to be women on the premises dictated by society, but at the same time they wanted to represent women on these same groundings. They wanted equality in terms of sameness but at the same time respect for the difference they themselves considered important. This contradiction lies at the heart of Scott’s expression that feminism has “only paradoxes to offer” (1996). Carol Pateman has conceptualised the same as the Wollstonecraft dilemma. Women demand inclusion into the existing order on liberal, gender-neutral terms while at the same time

“[…]as did Mary Wollstonecraft, that as women they have specific capacities, talents, needs and concerns, so that the expression of their citizenship will be differentiated from that of men.” (Pateman, 1989, 197).

Scott points out that the notion of women’s specific qualities was so dominant that women hardly had other options than to utilise them in their struggle (1996).

The portrayal of women as socialised to be maternal, caring and peaceful (Rich. 1995; Ruddick, 1995. Gilligan, 1982), often accompanied by the idea of women being more ethical and morally superior than men is but one aspect of this perplexity. While gender is certainly “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” to speak with Scott (1996: 42), it is too simple to say that society values those traits that are connected to masculinity. Society values the masculine male and “the traits deemed normal for masculinity” only when men display them. If women do show the same traits, they are not valued “but condemned for making them un-feminine (cold, unattractive, etc.)” (Stone 2016, 888). The dual arguments of sameness and difference are difficult to transform into political practice.

The women’s movement has had to combine gender neutral and women-centred arguments in the struggle for women’s full societal participation, but also to question the patriarchal relations these arguments are embedded in. In this respect, the narrative of women as peaceful and morally superior to men indeed continues to haunt women and gives rise to a complex situation, where disagreements among women become problematic. Another issue of relevance and worth addressing before exploring the theoretical perspectives on agonistic pluralism is the meaning of the structure of the movements at stake in my analysis.

The organizational form. A distinction has been made between a social movement and social organisation. According to Dahlerup, a social movement is a “conscious, collective activity to promote social change, with some degree of organization…” (1986, 218, italics in original). Social movements usually attempt to change people’s way of thinking, their everyday lives, but also political areas or even “the basic power structure of society” (Dahlerup 1986, 219). The women’s movement often addresses issues in the cultural and private spheres, and institutions outside the formal political system. Kaplan discusses the same issue in slightly different terms, suggesting the women’s movements in general employ two strategies, to be ‘oppositional’ and work outside the parliamentary system, or ‘collaborative’ and work inside of it (1992: 42), and Young distinguishes between direct action and deliberation, stating that many rights “have been won in democratic societies by means of courageous activism” (Young 2001, 670). One of the characteristics of the Icelandic women’s movement is that it has operated both within and outside the parliamentary system (Styrkársdóttir 1986) which I will return to.

Informal organization and a flat structure is frequently used by social movements in opposition to the hierarchical structure of traditional organisations. A loose structure has also been a main feature of large parts of the women’s movement from the 1970s (Dahlerup 1986). A strong emphasis on consensus is another feature that has been prevailing within the women’s movement (Yuval-Davis 2006; Ferree and Hess 2003). This applied both to the Redstockings movement and the Women’s Alliance (Árnadóttir 2011, Jónsdóttir 2007, Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998). It is a matter of some debate whether the organisational form itself is at the heart of the democratic issue or if it is the way the form is put into effect. The informal organisation has been controversial since Jo Freeman first published her essay “The tyranny of structurelessness” in the early 1970s. There is no such thing as a structureless group, Freeman claims, all groups will develop some kind of structure, although it may be flexible and vary over time. The absence of a formal structure opens up for informal relations that do not eliminate power, only disguise it, and leave it unrecognized and illegitimate. The group cannot confront power directly and therefore informal leaders and informal structures cannot be made accountable to the movement as formally no power is bestowed upon them (Freeman 1973).

Research is inconclusive on the effect of the structure. Based on experiences from the queer movement, Moore (2013) contends that structures are necessary to provide a framework for accountability. Structurelessness may contribute to the marginalisation of those already vulnerable and ‘othered’. “To eliminate structure in the name of a liberated structurelessness is to eliminate the possibilities for analysing power relations and inequities…” (Moore 2013, 260).

In a recent study on democracy and deliberation in global justice movements, Della Porta and her colleagues (Della Porta and Rucht 2013) only partially confirm the negative experiences reported for example by Moore (2013). They downplay the risk of informal structures as the observed groups were able to “manage their communication and activity” (Rucht 2013: 67), and constructively deal with disagreements (Haug and Rucht 2013, 202, 205). The authors also question the view that the consensus method is unclear and beyond accountability. The spirit of mutual respect, deliberation and consensus enables groups to reach a conclusion despite internal cleavages and heated controversies at times. The study concludes that it is not structurelessness in itself that is the deciding factor

“[…]but its combination with a number of prerequisites that allowed the group to function in a rather deliberative way: heterogeneity, empathetic listening, publicness, a culture of condour, and the evaluation of experience and commitment.” (Haug and Rucht 2013, 202, 205).

Agonistic pluralism. My theoretical perspective is inspired by Chantal Mouffe’s ideas on agonistic pluralism (2000) which I use to conceptualise disagreements in the feminist movement. My aim is to try to make sense of the events against the background of Mouffe’s analytical framework. One of Mouffe’s basic assumptions is that a society is comprised of diverse individuals who necessarily will disagree on many points, and that social relations always take place in a space of diversity and conflict. Her theory is a critique of deliberative democracy and consensus based on moral values and rationality (Habermas), as they ignore power dimensions which she sees as an inherent part of social relationships. Instead of seeing confrontations as inevitably harmful, Mouffe sees them as the very condition of existence:

“[A]gonistic pluralism emphasizes that the dimension of power is ineradicable in democracy, questions the ideal of consensus, puts contestation and antagonism central and values pluralism positively” (Mouffe 2000, 19).

In accordance with this, a search for complete reconciliation and agreement is unrealistic. This does not mean that consensus cannot be reached, but it is reconceptualised as “conflictual consensus” (2005, 52) and “temporary respites” in an ongoing process (2000, 102). In this respect Mouffe distinguishes between ‘antagonism’, which is a relationship between ‘enemies’ who do not “share common symbolic space” (2000, 13) and ‘agonism’, a relationship between ‘adversaries’ or what she paradoxically defines as ‘friendly enemies’ which are persons who share a symbolic space, and indeed, want to organize that space in a different way (Mouffe 2000, 13).

The agonistic model has been used in the most various contexts on different levels to analyse conflicts and disputes. A common starting point is Mouffe’s assumption that power relations and conflicts have to be recognised as inherent in human relations and that consensus is not always a possible and desirable. One example is Dillard and Roslender (2011) who employ pluralistic agony to show how accounting and control systems can be improved. They broaden the traditional term ‘stakeholders’ into ‘participants’, and take into account different assumptions, values, and perspectives. Last but not least do they stress that each participant must have the opportunity to speak and be heard, through access to information, for facilitating and supporting a dialogue.

          Two studies, in particular, have inspired my understanding of Mouffe’s approach; Cloyes (2002) who problematizes the construction of care and care ethics in nursing from an agonistic feminist perspective, and Goi (2005), who examines political disagreements on abortion through the lens of agonal democratic theory. Cloyes (2002) challenges how care and care ethics conventionally is depicted in essentialist, universalizing and naturalizing terms. Traditional nursing theory has tended to naturalize care and is tacit about the underlying assumptions that link gender, care and nursing. Cloyes addresses the under-theorized relations of care to power and argues for a theory that is sensitive to the tensions between care ethics and agonism. By employing an agonistic framework, she opens up for a more critical and politically engaged understanding of care.

Drawing on abortion in the US context as an example, an issue involving strong feelings, hostility and violence, Goi (2005) questions whether a deliberation and rational consensus is realistic and sensible in all cases. The deliberative idea that a decision is legitimate if only it is produced in a truly democratic way and through “free and equal conversation” (Goi 2005, 56) is contested as such a context hardly exists. In contrast, the agonal democratic interaction does not require consensus, only complicity to basic rules of civility. This includes “a commitment to listen as well as speak, and, when one speaks, to do so in good faith and sincerely, rather than with an eye to strategic manipulation” (Goi 2005, 61). It facilitates the agonal conversation if the participants “refrain from polarizing rhetoric” and do “not interrupt, grandstand, or make personal attacks.” (Goi 2005, 71).

Although such an interaction is not aiming at consensus it may pave the way for “agreement or compromise on subissues” (Goi 2005, 78), as well as “possibilities for collaboration and for respectful disagreement” (Goi 2005, 73). As decisions are seen as provisional, this frames the relationship between the winners and the losers differently, and the losers have an opportunity to make their voices heard. I believe that analysing the women’s movement against this background can contribute to a social and symbolic space in which differences among women are assumed, without risking paralysing the women’s movement or the tools and potential to fight.

The Redstockings and the Women’s Alliance

My case examples are based on events in the Redstockings movement in 1974, and the Women’s Alliance in 1983-1999. The Redstockings movement was active in Iceland from 1970 to 1981, to be wound up in 1982 when a group within the movement founded the Women’s Alternative (IS Kvennaframboðið, literally meaning the women’s candidacy), which soon developed into the Women’s Alliance (Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998, Styrkársdóttir 1986, Helgadóttir 1997). The Redstockings movement and the Women’s Alternative/Alliance were two were very different movements albeit with certain similarities and a line of continuity. Both were also a part of an international movement although with special Icelandic characteristics.

The Redstockings had a clear focus on women’s reproductive rights, such as abortion, and in that sense they be seen as a radical feminist movement. But they also campaigned for women’s social rights, the right to work, for wage equality with a special emphasis on low-paid women, public day care, and against sexism at the labour market, to mention some issues (Sigurðardóttir 2001; Helgadóttir , 1997). They used many of the forms of strategies that were used in other countries at the time, such as spontaneous, unplanned actions, organized events such as rallies, demonstrations and protests, civil disobedience and written texts (Dahlerup 1986, Kaplan 1992), and they received huge attention in Icelandic society (Matthíasdóttir 2013). The women’s lists, both the early and the late ones, had explicitly woman-centered focus and policy. While the Redstockings fought for women’s equality to men, and a more egalitarian and later socialist society, the Women’s Alliance claimed to be the ‘third dimension’ beyond the left-right political scale. Based on a special Icelandic version of cultural feminism, inspired by Berit Ås’ notion of women’s culture (Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998) they grounded their ideology in what they called “women’s experiences” (IS. sameiginlegur reynsluheimur kvenna) (Jónsdóttir 2007, 47).

The difference between the two movements was pronounced when it came to the notion of women. The Redstockings had a troubled relationship towards the traditional roles of women as wives and housewives, and demanded freedom for women to abandon motherhood. In contrast, the Women’s Alliance endorsed womanhood and fought for it to be revalued by society (Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998). They claimed freedom to choose to be women, and they launched the slogan “the thrifty housewife” (Jónsdóttir 2007, 47, own translation). While the Redstockings fought for the right of women to enter men’s jobs, the Women’s Alliance did not question the gender segregated labour market, and instead stressed that women’s jobs be re-evaluated and granted due respect in society (Matthíasdóttir and Einarsdóttir 2013, 77). The Women’s Alliance took advantage of the predominant images of women for their own purposes. They used the tail-cap (IS. skotthúfa), a part of the Icelandic national costume, as their symbol, referring to women’s cultural heritage. They utilised the image of a housewife or a housekeeper to advocate for women’s issues and to fight a corrupted political system. “Right girls, let's clean up the city council” was a slogan used by the Women's Alliance in the Reykjavík city council accompanied by a drawing of a cleaning lady (Schram 1986, 27). This sentiment and the associations it gave rise to turned out to be ambiguous.

The Women’s Alliance explicitly stated in its manifesto and elsewhere that the women’s specific experiences were socially and culturally constructed, and hence rejected all forms essentialism. They were nevertheless criticized for essentialising femininity, maternalism and maternal ethics as superior to male ethics. This critique came from outside the Women’s Alliance, indicating that the maternalist ideology overlooks the women’s diversity and their freedom to choose their own way of life (Þorgeirsdóttir 1994) as well as from within, involving that women’s roles as wives and mothers had been overemphasised within the Women's Alliance (Kristjánsdóttir 1995, Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998). This dispute about maternalism in the movement peaked with a harsh critique of maternalism by a former member of Parliament for the Women’s Alliance, Sigríður Dúna Kristmundsdóttir, in the European Journal of Women’s Studies (Björnsdóttir and Kristmundsdóttir 1995). Most of the members of the movement were women 25 to 45 years old, and most were mothers (Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998, 81). However, the fact that three of the 12 parliamentarians were single and childless at the time did not help to calm this critique.

Both the Redstockings and the Women’s Alliance used flat organisation. Hildur Hákonardóttir, an artist and a teacher, described the ideas underlying the flat structure figuratively in her account in the Redstockings memory book (Árnadóttir 2011). She points out that the movement neither had a formal policy nor a member registry, and the structure was flat, fluid and very dynamic.

“The pyramid is the symbol of power of domination. The pyramid is the symbol of administrative power. The pyramid is the symbol of organised militaries. The pyramid is the structure of our society[…] This form of organisation has been developed in order to monitor the underdogs – highly developed and organised system of domination – and totally unacceptable for us and our aims. The opposite is an organic form[…] A compilation of idea instead of a detailed manifesto[…] The manifesto would be written as a story of actions, and the projects the keen comrades have chosen to carry out do not need acceptance from the inactive ones” (Hákonardóttir, 2011: 42-43, own translation).

In Jónsdóttir’s account of the Women’s Alliance (2007), the aim behind the flat structure was to guarantee decentralisation, create a forum for discussion and to share responsibility (2007, 161). The movement refused to elect a leader, and by that refusing an order of rank and power relations (Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998). All meetings were open and the meeting form was casual, without podium and turn-talking was applied. The Women’s Alliance practiced a rule of alternation in all activities to prevent someone to getting more power than others. As a movement active within electoral politics, the Women’s Alliance had to have a slightly more structured form, such as a chairman for the parliamentary group which was a formal requirement from the Althingi (Jónsdóttir 20007, p. 162). Gradually it became clear that the structure posed severe problems for the Women’s List which were extensively discussed, not least after a group of young women had entered the movement in the early 1990s (Sigurbjarnardóttir, 1998).

Both movements practiced decision making by consensus. In general voting was not practised in the Redstockings movement (Árnadóttir 2011). On the other hand, the Women’s Alliance used voting at meetings during the first years of their activities, if opinions were strongly divided. Very soon this method was abandoned and attempts made to reach a conclusion through consensus. “This worked out very well and strengthened the solidarity”, Jónsdóttir says (2007, 164). This was though very time consuming, and it can be questioned whether the will of the majority always was respected. Those who had staying power and had time for long meetings, those who had the strongest opinions, were most verbal and articulate turned out to have the strongest voice in the movement (Jónsdóttir 2007, 166). In addition, the principle of rotation left the movement without the knowledge and experience of those who stepped down (Sigurbjarnardóttir 1998). This resonates with Freeman’s views on the risks of structurelessness (1973).

The Redstockings’ socialist manifesto 1974

No formal policy was in place for the Redstockings movement the first years, only very general ‘objectives’ in five points that were adopted in 1971. According to the objectives, the movement should work for full equality between men and women in all spheres of the society; work against gender prejudices and old fashioned views, and against what prohibits an individual to choose a job in accordance with her or his capacities and interests. Worth noting is that two of the objectives were specifically directed towards women themselves:

“To encourage women to make use of the societal rights they had, and to make themselves acquainted with social issues and be more active participants in the society (Óskarsdóttir, G. 2011, Ólafsson, 1971)”.

In June 1974 the Redstockings movement held a conference where the first formal policy, or manifesto, was on the agenda which would replace the rather unspecific objectives from 1971. The conference had been prepared for some time by a working group and the new policy proposition, including a statement that women’s struggle is class struggle, was believed to be known to the members (Þjóðviljinn 1974). In a newspaper article two days before the conference, Vilborg Harðardóttir a member of the movement and a journalist at Þjóðviljinn (e. The Will of the People), published by the left-wing People’s Alliance, explained the “urgent need” for a political platform. The initial 4-year period had revealed that the precondition for full equality between women and men would not be reached without claiming “fundamental societal changes” (Harðardóttir 1974, 7), even if this new policy would “cause some split” in the movement (Harðardóttir 1974, 13).

 The conference was conflictual, the manifesto was approved through voting (23 voted for, 5 voted against and 2 didn’t vote), and according to one of the members this was the first time a conclusion was reach through voting (Gunnarsdóttir, E. 2011, 271). The decision tore the movement apart and led to a split. Decades later, in 2011, twelve women from the pioneering group published their autobiographical memories (Árnadóttir 2011). Interestingly enough, and somewhat symbolic for the movement’s fate, the women active during the movement’s last year are not on board. The women’s narratives of the event and the following developments differ heavily. Vilborg Harðardóttir, the journalist at Þjóðviljinn quoted above, clarifies in the newspaper after the conference that there had been disagreement on fundamental issues to a much larger degree than anyone had expected. This was due to the fact that many issues had not been discussed thoroughly, she said, because of a fear of split along party lines. Among these issues is the question whether women can work for gender equality without fighting for social justice in a wider sense (Harðardóttir 1974, 7; 13).

Some of the women who supported the manifesto describe the post-manifesto period as constructive and successful; as “a positive turn” (Ólafsdóttir, H. 2011, 115); “revitalizing” (Hallgrímsdóttir 2011, 80), and some even describe it in an unproblematic way as the majority will: “We were simply more numerous who wanted a change” (Ágústsdóttir 2011, 304). Some of the women supported it although expecting that it would lead to a political split between left and right wing members (Óskarsdóttir, E. 2011: 155). Even some left-wing women saw the manifesto as negative and divisive (Óskarsdóttir, G. 2011: 184), remember it as “drama” (Sigurðardóttir 2011, 406) and one regrets the left-wing turn: “I didn’t see any reason to earmarking the movement so rigidly to the left” (Jónsdóttir, R. 2011, 218). Those who most strongly opposed the manifesto left the movement. One of them, Lilja Ólafsdóttir, describes her disappointment:

“An overwhelming majority of the participants accepted the manifesto. I was in the minority who fought with all might against the movement framing itself in such a categorical political compartment. There was a huge debate and we fought tooth and nail but it was clear from the beginning that the group who wanted to keep the Redstockings movement cross-party was much smaller than the other. This policy change was a huge disappointment and I successively found another venue for my struggle for equal rights”(Ólafsdóttir, L. 2011, 257, own translation).

Björg Einarsdóttir, a prominent non-left person at the time, who also left the movement is more moderate in her recollection of the event. The decision-making procedure was democratic and the conclusion legitimate, she points out, and adds:

“I was in the minority and this is why I withdrew from the movement. It was with regret though because the cooperation had been good and a learning experience, with tight personal relations and friendship that has lasted” (Einarsdóttir, B. 2011, 378).

 After the conference the movement became a battlefield for different left-wing radical groups (Guðmundsdóttir 1976, Ástgeirsdóttir 1999, Kristjánsdóttir 2011). Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir, a strong supporter and active in the group that prepared the manifesto, is critical of the turn in hindsight:

“Even though I was in the group that put together the manifesto, in hindsight I have doubts about the method and the conclusion. But still it was a wishful thinking that reconciliation ever was possible, a disagreement within the movement was already confirmed, and back then there was no space for a compromise” (Gunnarsdóttir, E. 2011, 271, own translation).

The Women’s Alliance and different ways of managing disagreements

While the Women’s Alternative, operating at the municipal level, was originally planned as a one-time ad hoc event in the 1982 local election, a lively discussion took off very soon creating a pressure for a parliamentary candidacy in the national elections in 1983. Opinions were heavily divided, but an open meeting in February 1983 agreed upon a parliamentary candidacy, against the will of the minority. However, the case was settled through the way the dispute was handled. It was decided that the national list would not be run by the original group, the .

Women’s Alternative (Kvennaframboðið). Instead, a new organisation would be established, which would be called Kvennalistinn, the Women’s Alliance. Following this, some of the women left the movement (Jónsdóttir 2007, 149), and others remained very critical (Dominelli & Jónsdóttir 1988). However, important for the events that unfolded is that the majority did not force the original group to comply, and conversely, the original group did not openly oppose this step (, n.d.). In other words, it did not “throw a spanner in the work for those who, based on their conviction, wish to go another way”, as indicated by Halldórsdóttir in the quote in the opening section above.

There were several other disagreements within the Women’s Alliance. I will briefly discuss two other disputes that were managed and kept at the minimum; firstly, the position towards the agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1993-1994, and secondly, the participation in the Reykjavík List, a left-wing alliance, in the local elections in 1994 (Jónsdóttir 2007, 226). The EEA agreement which was established in 1994 provided the EFTA countries access to the EU's internal market without being members of the EU by adopting most EU legislation except for agriculture and fisheries. While the Women’s Alliance took a categorical stance against the EEA agreement, an influential member of the Women’s Alliance and one of five members of parliament, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, did not comply to the party line. On that occasion the Women’s Alliance reiterated its position in the matter, but responded to Gísladóttir’s position by concluding that no member would be forced go against her own conscience (Fréttabréf 1992). When the EEA agreement was issued by the parliament the Women’s Alliance was split; four out of five women voted against it, and Gísladóttir did not vote (Halldórsdóttir 1993, 26). According to Sigurbjarnardóttir (1998), this is one expression of the vague vision of the Women’s Alliance, which called for a sharper political profile and how the EEA agreement would lead to a better, or a worse, society for women. Hence, instead of consensus the disagreements above were worked out by a compromise which may be seen as a “temporary respite from ongoing confrontation” (Mouffe 2000 p. 102).

The second dispute revolved around the Reykjavík List in the local elections in 1994. The Reykjavík municipality had been ruled by the right-wing Independence Party almost continuously since 1930. The Reykjavík List was preceded by unsuccessful attempts to unite the left-of-center parties (Guðmundsson 1990) which succeeded in 1994 when a coalition between four parties came to power. The Women’s Alliance joined the alliance which was led by Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir who became the mayor of Reykjavík. This process was problematic for the Women’s Alliance. The critics claimed that participation in the Reykjavík List meant the abandoning of its main hallmark, to be the ‘third dimension’ beyond left and right wing politics (Kristmundsdóttir 1998), and that it was a breach of confidentiality towards their voters (Einarsdóttir 1995). This, however, did not lead to a split in the movement.

The victory of the Reykjavík List ignited a lively debate about a similar coalition in national politics in the upcoming election in 1995, but opinions were heavily divided. Among the critics was Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, a member of parliament who celebrated the victory of the Reykjavík List as a momentum at the same time she warned that the left-wing parties were far from being able to join forces at the national level as the Reykjavík List. “What are we going to unite around, and for what reason?” she asks (Ástgeirsdóttir 1994, 19). At this point in time the Women’s Alliance was on the decline in national politics after a considerable loss of support in the elections in 1991. The Women’s Alliance rejected cooperation though with other parties in the 1995 elections (Fréttabréf 1994).

The national election 1995 turned out to be disastrous for the Women’s Alliance, with 4.9% of the votes, a lower rate than in the first elections in 1983. The continued discussion on a coalition took place in a contradictory atmosphere; a whirl of optimism over the Reykjavík List, but still in the shadow of the big defeat, and deep disagreement within the Women’s Alliance. In a critical self-examination in an article titled “Back to square one”, Ástgeirsdóttir pondered over the results. Among the reasons she specified were disappointment among the voters over slow progress and internal disputes, also that the demands for a wider cooperation had been stronger than they had realised. She also suggested that the Reykjavík List and what she saw as a lack of support from the mayor were among the reasons (Ástgeirsdóttir 1995), a view that was contested though by others (Hvers vegna tapaði Kvennalistinn 1995). In the aftermath of the big defeat several future scenarios were eagerly discussed inside and outside the Women’s Alliance (Vera 1995), and a growing group of women supported cooperation with the left-wing parties. After extensive discussions at the annual meeting 1995 a conclusion was reached that the Women’s Alliance would continue as hitherto, while putting more effort into the activities (Landsfundur 1995).  

Despite this conclusion, a lively discussion on cooperation increased, with mainly two lines of reasoning. On the one hand, there were those who advocated co-operation with the left-wing parties as the Women’s Alliance was depleted of its potential. With reference to the Reykjavík List, cooperation with the left-wing parties, and with men, was seen as the only realistic response to ideological stagnation and poor recruitment of new members (Óskarsdóttir, 1997). In her account of the Women’s Alliance, Jónsdóttir contends that a group of young educated women entering the Women’s Alliance in 1991-1992 had considerable impact on the development. Accompanied by one of the parliamentarians, Guðný Guðbjörnsdóttir, they leaned towards postmodernism and stressed the variety of women instead of what unites women, Jónsdóttir claims; they had personal ambitions in politics and saw the Women’s Alliance as an opportunity to make a difference (Jónsdóttir 2007, 224-225). On the other hand, the argument against a left-wing cooperation were that the old parties represented the past and had shown no signs of new approaches or sympathy to feminism. Not least it was claimed that it would mean a complete abandoning the ideology of the Women’s Alliance to be the third dimension beyond left-right wing politics. If the potentials of Women’s Alliance were depleted, it would simply require the movement to pause (Einarsdóttir 1997).

At the annual meeting in 1997 a conclusion was reached in a dramatic clash. A voting was seen as unavoidable. It resulted in 38 voted for cooperation with the left-wing alliance, 16 against, and 6 did not vote (Landsfundur 1997). The request of the opposing minority was rejected, suggesting a dignified closing of the Women’s Alliance, and a new organisation for those who choose participation in the left-wing coalition. The parliamentary group was totally split, one voting for the cooperation, one against, and one who did not vote. Several influential women among the pioneers left the movement, among them one of the parliamentarians at the time, Ástgeirsdóttir, who served as an independent parliamentarian for the rest of the mandate period (Jónsdóttir 2007, 232).

In 1999, Vera, the journal of the Women’s Alliance, published a thematic issue in relation to the winding down of the movement shortly after the national elections. Among those who gave their account of the events were the three parliamentarians, Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, Guðný Guðbjörnsdóttir and Kristín Halldórsdóttir, the woman quoted in the opening section above. Ástgeirsdóttir’s harsh account portrays the events as a story that repeats itself, the women’s movement being infiltrated by left-wing males, as had happened with the Redstockings movement. She describes the 1997 annual meeting, when the minority was overpowered by the majority, as an act of violence and a strategic manipulation, and the spirit of her account is that once again “the sisterhood broke down” (Ástgeirsdóttir 1999, 11). Guðbjörnsdóttir, who had been the representative of the Women’s Alliance in the negotiations, defends the cooperation, and maintains that the choice had been between further isolation and marginalization on the one hand, and on the other hand to position the Women’s Alliance in the center in order to have influence through cooperation.

The Women’s Alliance had chosen to take part in national politics in collaboration with others in order to have impact and transform society. The platform to be used would be based on mainstreaming gender into all issues which she sees as a guarantee of the legacy of the Women’s Alliance (Guðbjörnsdóttir 1999). Kristín Halldórsdóttir’s words in the initial quote, that the majority doesn’t automatically have the right to force a conclusion upon the minority, and the minority does not to throw a spanner in the work for those who wish to go another way, no longer reflected the state of things. Consensus war far from being in sight, not even a compromise.  

Discussion and concluding remarks

In the discussion above Chantal Mouffe’s ideas of agonistic pluralism offered a theoretical framework to understand the disagreements I explore. By seeing power relations as ineradicable in social relationships, the ideal of consensus may at best be an illusion in a democratic system. I started with a contextualisation of the Icelandic women’s movement against the paradoxical historical legacy of strong Icelandic women which has existed alongside presupposed feminine traits and maternal ethics. Time and again the women’s movement in Iceland has based its claims on woman-centered arguments. This has created a complex situation with an internal tension between a struggle for the rights of women on the same terms as men at the same time as patriarchal structures are challenged. Women centered arguments easily feed into the historical narrative of women as peaceful and morally superior to men, which has haunted the women’s movement, making disagreements problematic and a source of embarrassment.

The organisational form of the women’s movement in terms of informal structure and the consensual method of decision making is another factor that has contributed to the ambiguities and the perplexity of the Icelandic women’s movement, not least when it comes to severe disagreements or disputes. My analysis shows that disagreements have been managed in different ways. As a main practice the Redstockings and the Women’s Alliance attempted to reach conclusion through consensus, and voting was an exception. However, decisions by consensus do not necessarily indicate consensus in a literate sense. The crucial aspect is how the process evolves, and how eventual frictions and tensions are managed.

My first example is the Redstockings’ adoption of a socialist manifesto in 1974. Despite a period of preparations on behalf of the proposers of the manifesto, the opposition was underestimated as were the strong feelings involved. The left-wing turn was decided through voting and lead to a split, which many women in the winning majority regretted in hindsight. The time factor has to be taken into account when we look at the accounts as the women are recollecting events that took place decades ago. It is also possible that the regrets of the women are affected by the later development of the Redstockings, as the movement became a battlefield for male left-wing movements and was more or less paralysed when it declined. It is beyond the scope of my discussion to speculate how different proceedings would have ended.   

In the Women’s Alliance several decisions have been made in which the majority has respected the views and values of the minority. The examples I draw on in the discussion are four. The first one is the decision of a group of women to run a women’s list for the national election in 1984 against the will of some of the women active at the municipal level, where the movement started one year earlier. The matter was settled by creating a new platform, and leaving the first one intact. No strategic manipulation seems to have been in place and the two groups could leave the dispute as a “respectful disagreement”, to use the words of Goi (2005).

The second example is the dispute around the EEA agreement which the Women’s Alliance was against but one of the women in the parliamentary group did not comply with. Also this dispute was, at least on the surface, managed by not “throwing a spanner in the work” for the woman who, based on her conviction, wished to go another way, to use the expression of Halldórsdóttir above. It can be seen as a “temporary respite from an ongoing confrontation” (Mouffe 2000). The third disagreement was the participation in the Reykjavík List in the local elections in 1994. The critique in this matter was never very loud, maybe because the victory of the Reykjavík list was a uniting event for a large group of women. Perhaps the disagreement can be seen as “conflictual consensus” to speak with Mouffe (2005).

My final example revolves around a major decision that was made in a complete disagreement which lead to a split in the Women’s Alliance, and left women with deep feelings of hurt and even hostility toward one another. When the Women’s Alliance decided 1997 to join forces with the left-wing parties for the national election 1999 we witnessed conflictual way of proceeding, confrontations, a contested issue concluded by a vote, in which the minority felt overpowered by the majority.

By exploring the disagreements above through the lenses of agonistic pluralism I hope to contribute to a wider understanding of what has been a highly sensitive issue. This framing of women’s relationships has a potential to pave the way for a more constructive understanding of conflictual interaction among women. By challenge the idea of women as more peaceful and moral than men we can establish space for disagreement as a ‘normal’ part of political interaction among women, within and outside the women’s movement. The aim does not need to be consensus, instead it can be a temporary respite from ongoing confrontation. By employing insights from the discussion above, such as reconceptualising enemies as adversaries or friendly enemies, by committing ourselves to listen as well as speak, to refrain from polarizing rhetoric, without grandstand, or making personal attacks we may be able to make an agreement or compromise on subissues or leave disputes in respectful disagreement. Last but not least, we should resist the temptation to  take advantage of circumstances that put us in a favourable or majority position in relation to a minority which would  feel defeated by superior force. I believe that analysing disputes among women against this background can contribute to a social and symbolic space in which differences among women are assumed, without risking paralysing the women’s movement or deprive them of the tools and potential to fight.



Thorgerdur J. Einarsdóttir is a professor of gender studies at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Iceland. She received her PhD in Sociology from Goteborg University in 1997. She has lead the gender studies programme at the University of Iceland since 2000. Einarsdóttir’s research area covers a broad range of issues from feminist theory and equality policies to labour market issues, gender and academia and transgender issues.


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labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/ 2017- junho 2018 /juillet 2017-juin 2018