Secrets of the Sprakkar

Eliza Reid extols Icelandic gender equality


Photo: Kristin Bogadottir / Simon & Schuster
Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid, is a Canadian, who has thoroughly embraced her new country.

Everett, Wash.

She’s the first lady of Iceland; wife of Iceland’s president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson; the mother of four; and now, Canadian-born Eliza Reid also is the author of a remarkable and eye-opening new book.

Secrets of the Sprakkar is subtitled “Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World”—and if the author herself is any indication, these women are going to make a substantial and positive impact.

In May, Reid visited Seattle to promote her book, which she describes as “my love letter to Iceland.” She made a memorable appearance at the National Nordic Museum with moderator Patricia Murphy (in partnership with Third Place Books), discussing her book and her position as Iceland’s “first lady” with wit, humor, and wisdom. The lively and well-attended gathering found Reid in a contemplative mood, as she discussed the “surreal” experience of the past several years.

“I had a husband who had never run for public office. Suddenly, I was the First Lady of Iceland, moving house, finding a lot of new expectations. I had four kids in under six years, and when I dropped the kids off at school, I sometimes wore old maternity clothes. Did I suddenly need a new outfit to do that?

“At first, I found all this a little intimidating. I’m Canadian; I didn’t want to rock the boat too much.”

It didn’t take long, however, for Reid to find her way forward in her new role.

“I’m here because of what my husband achieved. Do I use or squander this opportunity? I can use my voice to bring up important issues,” she said.

Image: Simon & Schuster
Secrets of the Sprakkar is a book for anyone interested in creating a more gender-equal world.

Clearly, Reid is making the most of her opportunities in a situation that no one could have foreseen. As we discover in Secrets of the Sprakkar, Reid met her future husband, an up-and-coming Icelander, when both were students at Oxford University. After a courtship and a move, she proposed to him, and he accepted.

While he was finishing his doctoral dissertation, she took a six-week trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, backpacking around Southeast Asia. All this happens before Page 6 in Reid’s book, and the alert reader has already discerned that Reid is indeed a “sprakki” (the singular form of “sprakkar,” or “extraordinary women”).

Then it’s off to Iceland, where Reid and her husband have four children in rapid succession. In 2016, Jóhannesson becomes Iceland’s president, and Reid becomes forsettafrú. Her “first lady” status is a title with really no job description, so Reid makes her own way forward, learning to speak Icelandic and adjusting to new expectations. The highly entertaining and often humorous narrative takes us behind the scenes, where Reid has no salary as first lady, no dedicated staff, no clothing allowance, and no pension. (There are other substantial perks, however.)

In her book, Reid unveils the practical workings of a society somewhat different from our own. In Iceland, both parents are likely to work outside the home, and kids go to preschool or childcare.

“Children in Iceland have a level of freedom that parents in many non-Nordic countries can only recall with a fond nostalgia from decades ago,” she reports in Secrets of the Sprakkar.

Along the way, we find out about Icelandic sexual norms, considerably less stringent than our own. (“My mom is so strict,” one adolescent girl complained to a friend; “When I bring home a guy for the night, she insists that I introduce him to her the next morning.”)

We also find out about Reid’s friends in the Jellyfish, a group of women swimmers she joins for swims in 54-degree waters (not without a few shrieks first).

But the book’s real eye-opener is the story of Unnur Brá Konrádsdótter, a member of Iceland’s parliament, who brought her 6-week-old infant, Hervōr, to a parliament meeting. When Konrádsdótter suddenly was required to stand and address a point of order, the baby was quietly nursing, so Konrádsdótter calmly rose and “spoke for 48 seconds, Hervōr pressed against her chest, silent and content.”

Reid’s probing interviews with Icelandic women from all walks of life are illuminating and personal, and her anecdotes give an often-amusing sense of her life as a public figure. Sometimes she gets unsolicited sartorial advice.

One polite message from a citizen observed: “I saw the photos of you greeting the Indian presidential couple, wearing a green dress. Pardon the forwardness, but green is definitely not your color. The blue dress was lovely, though.”

Other voices, particularly Reid’s sprakkar interview subjects, are more substantive: a ship captain, Dora Kristín, observed: “I remember when I started, and people wanted to interview me for TV because they thought it was so fascinating. I was called a feminist, but I really don’t think it’s all that special just because I’m a woman who works at sea. Who cares what genitals you have to do this job?”

Reid told her National Nordic Museum audience that “sprakkar” actually is a fairly obscure word even in Iceland: “My husband and my mother-in-law didn’t know this word. I wanted to use it to paint a portrait of a country where gender equality is almost here. I talked to a diverse range of women, many of them everyday people with a personal connection to me.”

It was the pandemic, she says, that spurred her to write this book, because “everything stopped except school. I always did a lot of writing and editing, and there’s a phrase that translates ‘To walk with a book in your belly.’ Everyone has a story to tell; this is mine.”

Although Reid focuses on remarkable achievers, she knows that Icelandic society has its imperfections.

“Iceland is the world’s most peaceful country, and one of the happiest countries. But there are still high rates of domestic violence,” Reid says. “Everyone knows there is more left to do. It’s going to take another generation to achieve gender parity. Women of foreign origin face unique challenges. We still need more women running companies and doing more investing. We need to have women speaking up more, not less!”

Reid urges journalists to think: “Are there the same number of men and women sources in what we write? Are women being targeted more than men in online comments sections? We need to examine these issues. Gender equality elevates everybody. Countries that are more gender-equal are more peaceful and happier.”

When her fourth child–a daughter–arrived, Reid had grown a little weary of the patronymic custom that named their three sons after their father. “Son of Gudni?” she remarks of the three names. “I put some work into that!”

Their daughter’s surname is “Reid.” It’s a name of which she can be very proud.

Secrets of the Sprakkar by Eliza Reid (SourceBooks, 288 pages, $26.99

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Melinda Bargreen

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s forthcoming 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Washington in Seattle, and a doctorate in English from the University of California, Irvine.