Books

Eliza Reid, Canadian-born first lady of Iceland, writes book about gender equality

Secrets of the Sprakkar looks at Iceland's success with gender equality, and will be published on Feb. 8, 2022.

Secrets of the Sprakkar will be published on Feb. 8, 2022

Eliza Reid is the Canadian-born first lady of Iceland. (Simon & Schuster Canada)

Eliza Reid, the Canadian-born first lady of Iceland, has written a book about gender equality.

Secrets of the Sprakkar looks at Iceland's success with gender equality. Sprakkar is an ancient Icelandic word meaning extraordinary or outstanding women. In Secrets of the Sprakkar, Reid interviews several women who would be considered sprakkar, and weaves their stories together alongside her own — moving from Ottawa to Oxford to study, then immigrating to Iceland. Along the way, Reid takes a bigger picture look at how gender equality has evolved in Iceland, and explores what cultural and political factors have led to the tiny country being called one of the best places in the world to be a woman.

Reid, who's 45, has been Iceland's first lady for the past five years, after her husband Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson was elected to the role of President and head of state on Aug. 1, 2016. Prior to running for President, Jóhannesson was a history professor.

The job is akin to Canada's Governor General, but with slightly more power when it comes to determining the formation of coalition governments.

Reid grew up near the Ottawa Valley community of Ashton and the couple met while they were both studying history at Oxford University.   

They got engaged and she followed him back to Iceland in 2003, learning Icelandic and raising four children along the way.

Reid has become immersed in Icelandic culture — and has been a champion for gender equality, tourism, sustainability and literature during her tenure as first lady.

LISTEN | Eliza Reid discusses Canadian literature:

The first lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, discusses the Nordic literary scene.

"Secrets of the Sprakkar is my love letter to Iceland. In this book I wanted to share some of the facets of society I find so remarkable and appealing (and some of the areas we need to work on)," Reid said in a statement to CBC Books

"Yes, numerous government policies are helping to hasten the journey to gender equality, but change is also driven by everyday people who want to make our country and our world better for everyone. I hope the stories in this book not only introduce people to the diversity and energy of my adopted homeland, but also that they inspire readers to help elevate and nurture the sprakkar (outstanding women) in their own communities." 

Secrets of the Sprakkar is already garnering acclaim, including an endorsement from former U.S. first lady and secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Secrets of the Sprakkar is a fascinating window into what a more gender-equal world could look like, and why it's worth striving for. Iceland is doing a lot to level the playing field: paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and broad support for gender equality as a core value. Reid takes us on an exploration not only around this fascinating island, but also through the triumphs and stumbles of a country as it journeys toward gender equality."

Secrets of the Sprakkar will be published on Feb. 8, 2022.

You can read an excerpt from Secrets of the Sprakkar below.


An immigrant on Iceland

From those early memories of seeing women smoothly operate in what I had experienced as male-dominated fields to giving birth to four children in under six years and founding my own business on the eve of a devastating economic collapse, I've had the privilege of enjoying what it's like to be a woman living in arguably the world's most gender-equal country. More recently, I have learned to use my unexpected platform as first lady to help modernize expectations of an outdated role and to add another immigrant's voice and perspective to the equality fight.

This book is my love letter to Iceland — an appealingly imperfect country, a society that is constantly working to improve, where debate thrives but solidarity and empathy envelop us when crises occur.

Really, in many ways, this book is my love letter to Iceland — an appealingly imperfect country, a society that is constantly working to improve, where debate thrives but solidarity and empathy envelop us when crises occur. A nation where women persist in seeking equality and where most of us feel supported in that ambition most of the time. A country I am proud to call my home, where I have succeeded as an entrepreneur and learned to use my voice when fate handed me a platform, and one where I believe our achievements today will lead to even more equal futures for the generations to come as well as serve as inspiration to people around the world.

Eliza Reid is the First Lady of Iceland. (AFP/Getty Images)

But my story alone does not paint a complete picture of the joys and challenges of female existence on this North Atlantic island. I wanted to explore what it is about Icelandic society that makes it so conducive to improving life for girls and women—and therefore men, boys, and nonbinary people too. Because surely these lessons can be applied elsewhere, to inspire people in Vancouver and Vermont, in Dundee and Dallas.

Do the ingredients for success stretch back to the time of the epic family feuds that were chronicled in the centuries-old tales collectively known as the sagas, which featured numerous tenacious women, or more recently to the 1980 election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world's first democratically elected female head of state? Is it a matter of crediting government-imposed policies, such as heavily subsidized child care and government paid parental leave for both parents, or should we look more to why this society pushes for new laws to be created, like the recent legal amendments to codify the rights of trans and nonbinary individuals? How about the liberal attitude toward single parenthood and sexuality in general, or a broader definition of masculinity? How much can we attribute to the small, cohesive, family-centric society where everyone needs to wear a lot of professional hats in order to have a thriving country? And what can we learn from the recent influx of immigrants, who bring new experiences and backgrounds to Iceland but who face their own unique challenges once here?

Gudni Johannesson and Eliza Reid in 2003 when Reid, who's from Ottawa, first moved to Iceland. (Eliza Reid)

Certainly, the independent, stalwart, determined women who have left their marks on this society over the centuries have inspired their descendants today, not least through a confidence and belief that we can each play a role in improving our communities. Iceland is a storytelling nation, and many living Icelanders have been raised on a diet of the heroics of women in the sagas, the gumption of those who avenged wrongs, and the grit of those who fought against the odds for their principles.

Iceland is a storytelling nation, and many living Icelanders have been raised on a diet of the heroics of women in the sagas, the gumption of those who avenged wrongs, and the grit of those who fought against the odds for their principles.

For this book, I spoke to dozens of extraordinary women in Iceland. These sprakkar, to use an ancient Icelandic term, come from all ages and walks of life and regions of the country. Many of them fly under the radar, but their lived experiences nevertheless help portray a society that values the ambition of gender equality and is endeavouring to elevate it. They are women like you and me and the women we know. Together, they form a portrait of life in a country where gender equality is within reach — tantalizingly close to an unfixed finish line — yet also where frequently demoralizing and damaging challenges persist. Whether first lady, sheep farmer, immigrant, soccer star, comedian, mayor or sex advisor, we are all Icelanders sharing our stories and insights about what makes this land so equal for so many. And we are revealing the secrets about how we can nurture, support, and elevate the sprakkar who live within us and in our communities so we can all do our part to achieve gender equality, no matter where we live.


Excerpted from Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland's Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World by Eliza Reid. Published by Simon and Schuster Canada, 2022. All rights reserved.

WATCH | Eliza Reid shares her journey to becoming Iceland's first lady:

Iceland's first lady is Canadian

6 years ago
Duration 5:09
Eliza Reid's husband Gudni Johannesson will be sworn as president in on August 1

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