Iceland’s Canadian-born first lady is such a keen advocate of her adopted country and its progressive gender politics that she’s writing books about it.
As guests nibbled on Icelandic lamb and sipped Icelandic vodka at a trendy Seattle cocktail bar, an Icelandic DJ spun Nordic tunes. The occasion: a vip reception for Taste of Iceland, a travelling roadshow that immerses key markets in the country’s food, culture and design. Among the ambassadors? First lady Eliza Jean Reid.
That Canadian-born Reid, who has been married to Icelandic president Guðni Th Jóhannesson since 2004, would become one of Iceland’s soft-power envoys was as unexpected as a Viking ambush. When she met her future husband while they were students at the University Oxford, her knowledge of his homeland was limited. But as their courtship progressed, and with Jóhannesson’s daughter living in his native country, there was a decision to be made. “If we wanted to be together, we had to go to Iceland,” says Reid. When she made the jump across the North Atlantic, she was determined to do so on her own terms. That meant finding a job, making friends and integrating into the community. “I moved to Iceland for him,” she says. “I wanted to stay there for me.”
Learning the Icelandic language was key to Reid’s assimilation. She studied at the University of Iceland in the evenings while working in marketing for a software start-up. After two years of study and years of language immersion drawn from raising a family in Iceland, Reid can now comfortably give television and radio interviews in the language.
She needed those skills in 2016, when in a mere seven weeks her husband went from academic political pundit to president – a ceremonial head-of-state position – thrusting her into the national spotlight. As a foreign-born Icelander, she has raised the immigrant population’s profile in a country stereotyped for its ethnic homogeneity.
There is no formal role for the first spouse in the Icelandic constitution. But Reid insisted that she would not be “arm candy for my husband”. She only accompanies him to formal occasions, such as the September golden jubilee for King Carl xvi Gustaf of Sweden, if there is a dedicated role. “I wanted to confound expectations about female spouses in politics,” she says.
1976: Born in Ottawa.
1999: Graduated with a master’s in modern history from the University of Oxford.
2003: Moved to Iceland.
2004: Married Guðni Th Jóhannesson.
2014: Co-founded the Iceland Writers Retreat.
2016: Became first lady.
2017: Named United Nations special ambassador for tourism and the sustainable development goals.
2022: Published her first book, Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World.
This is why much of her busy travel schedule is for her own agenda. In addition to her tourism promotion with Business Iceland, which runs Taste of Iceland, she is a UN special ambassador for tourism and the sustainable development goals. In 2014 she co-founded the Iceland Writers Retreat, drawn in part from Reykjavík’s status as a Unesco City of Literature. Eight years later, Reid published a book: Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World.
Last year those various hats led her to touch down in Chicago, New York and Berlin in one month alone. “These are ways I can work to enhance Iceland’s presence on the world stage,” she says.
As the subject of her book suggests, Reid is passionate about Iceland’s hard-earned reputation for gender equality. She was pleasantly surprised that no one batted an eyelid when her first employer’s board president breast-fed while chairing a meeting. Women hold leadership roles across society, from the bishop of Iceland to the national police commissioner.
That said, those gains didn’t stop her joining the Women’s Strike in October to ensure that the world’s most gender-equal country doesn’t backslide. She will continue to investigate these themes in her second book, a mystery novel. It will be set in Iceland, of course. And, true to form, it will have a strong female lead.