Iceland: A Land without Farmer’s Wives

Published on Fri, 09/22/2017 - 3:22pm

 Iceland: A Land without Farmer’s Wives 

 By Ryan Dennis

 Birna shook my hand firmly when I walked through the door.  She was in her late fifties and had smartly cropped hair and black-rimmed glasses.  A business executive, I thought.  Or maybe an artist.  But not a farmer.  She showed me to my room right away, which had belonged to one of her sons.  It was downstairs in their large, elegantly-decorated house.  The mattress and pillow were bare, with the bedding stacked next to it.  “You can make your own bed,” she said.

Birna Þorsteinsdóttir and her husband Rúnar lived in Fluðir, in the southern part of the island.  The farm, named Reykir, had originally been his grandfather’s, and then was split into three parts for his grandchildren.  This generation was all cousins, living next to each other in a three-farm colony.
“I take it you’ve milked a cow before,” Birna said, stepping into the blue overalls found in every Icelandic milk house.  She put on rubber gloves, asked if I usually did the same, and then slipped on a bandana to keep the manure out of her hair.  She moved swiftly from cow to cow, washing the udders, putting the milkers on, and taking them off when they were done.  Her hands worked the teats efficiently and without hesitation.  It was not tender or motherly.  She yelled at the cows in Icelandic when they did not come in the parlor or tapped them swiftly on their thurls until they responded.  She allowed me to milk beside her without question.  In
my experience most farmers wouldn’t.  Birna showed me which buttons opened and closed the hydraulic gate and gave little else instruction.  She trusted in my competence, and thereby de facto expected it.  Sometimes she left the parlor to check a calf being born or to see if the milkman was there, leaving me to milk on my own.

The story of the Icelandic woman goes like this:
The Vikings knew how to settle a land.  In addition to the livestock they brought to the island, they kidnapped the best-looking women in Ireland and Scotland.  A recent genetic study has confirmed that Icelandic women, often suggested as being the most beautiful in the world, have Celtic origins.  The study did not state whether Irish men still hold a grudge.
In addition to being warriors, nearly all
 settlers, particularly noblemen, were farmers.  When possible, most fighting occurred in the less harvest-intense seasons.  Still, not having forfeited the sword for the ploughshare, the men were often away.  They fought battles in their own name or that of someone else, leaving the women to manage the farm.  There’s no way of knowing who these women were before they were taken from their native lands or what their husbands had thought of them when they had left the farm.  What they found when they came back, however, were females that were capable, tough, and independent.  As is sometimes said in Iceland, they did not give back the keys to the farm.   
Since 2009, Iceland has topped the world in The Global Gender Gap Index, which ranks countries according to their gender equality.  The income disparity between sexes is among the lowest on the planet, and every political party is required by law to contain at least 40% female representatives.  In 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became Europe’s first female president and the first democratically-elected female head of state in the world.  The value of women’s rights is prevalent throughout Icelandic society.
There are only 650 farms in this Nordic country whose dramatic landscape is defined
by volcanos, glaciers, geysers and lava fields. Every farm visit started the same way: I called and explained that I was a stranger and a foreigner, and that I wanted to stay on their farm.  It was always the husband that picked up the phone.  There would be a silence, and then he would say “Let me ask my wife.  Call again in two days.”  More times than not, they said yes.
On one
particular trip I travelled north on the island with a friend named Hördur to visit his family on the weekend of the valley’s horse réttir.  The locals participated in rounding up the mares and foals that spent the summer grazing free in the mountains.  They herded them into a central gathering pen and then jumped inside to look for their own stock.  It was something I thought could have only existed in the middle ages: Icelandic people singing, drinking, and wrestling horses.  Hördur was to introduce me to one of the area dairy farmers, but the husband of the farm was engaged in the act of horse trading.  He stood inside the pen with his arm over a stranger, a bottle of Brennivín passing between them.  The farmer’s face took in more color as he laughed and pointed out horses and leaned further on the other man.
Later that night we went to his farm.  As is tradition, the merriment continued and the farmer’s house was filled with neighbors from the valley, eating, laughing, and spilling Brennivín as they told stories.  The farmer was in the corner, entertaining the guests that surrounded him and using spirited hand gestures as he talked.  Hördur asked if we could look at the barn.  He motioned us towards the door.  “Ask Ása about it,” the farmer said.  “She knows more about that stuff anyway.”

We walked into the barn and found a small crowd gathered around the calving pen.  Hördur and I took a position on the walkway built overthe freestalls, where one could look down over the entire building.  A few people stared up at first, and then seemed to forget us, figuring us for party guests that got bored.
Ása, the wife on the farm, stood in the middle of the calving pen, rolling up her right sleeve as far as it would go.  She was in her fifties, had choppy gray hair, and was built solid.  She plunged her arm inside a cow that was tied to the pen.  The Icelandic cow is known for having a higher rate of stillborns.  This calf, however, she was not going to lose.  She slipped a rope around its pasterns and leaned back with all her weight, her face frozen with strain and tension.  Finally, the heifer dropped to the floor as a wet bundle.  Ása cleared out its nostrils while peals of laughter could be heard from the house.
Dairy cattle, explains Áslaug Helgadóttir, a professor from the Agricultural University of Iceland, were considered “a woman’s business.”  Men managed the 
sheep, horses and fields, but had less interest in the dairy until it became more mechanized after the Second World War.  On most farms I visited the men usually ran the machinery, and sometimes completed custom fieldwork for others while the wives milked. On Reykir, Rúnar also sells manure injectors in partnership with three other male farmers.  
Although it is now changing and there are always exceptions, the partition of duties on American farms was often that the husband “farmed” while the wife cooked and performed calf chores.  Women were seen as better with calves because of virtues traditionally ascribed to their gender, including being more patient and having a “motherly” instinct. Growing up, I had heard many farmers call their wives “The Boss,” but only jokingly.  Once
in Iceland I had heard a similar jest, a husband suggesting that his wife ran the place and that he was just a hired hand. In this case, however, it was different.  She made all of the decisions relating to the cattle, from breeding to nutrition.  In Iceland several characteristics of agriculture soon became apparent: that the milking parlor is the woman’s domain, and that there are no farmer’s wives in Iceland.  There are only farmers.

The best way to explain my time with Birna is this: it was simply milking cows.  There were no outlandish anecdotes from the visit.  She did not try to impress me with production facts or complain about the nature of farming.  It was clear that she had nothing to prove. When she left for the barn without saying a word I followed her to the parlor and helped get the cows. (The only awkward moment was when I thought her cat was named “Thriller” and asked if she liked Michael Jackson.)  I don’t know much about her personal life, mostly because I didn’t feel it was my place to ask. I know that she had a dairy farm with her first husband, but after both her and Rúnar’s spouses passed away, they eventually came together on Reykir. In a simple calculation she was a woman whose life had changed around her but had continued to farm through all of it.  I asked if her son was a farmer and she said “Not yet” with a wink, meaning that he had to wait for them to retire.  Nonetheless, I also suspect in that gesture was the suggestion that she still had a lot more farming left in her.  

About the Author:
Ryan Dennis, a freelance writer from New York State, visited the farm of Icelandic dairy farmer Birna Þorsteinsdóttir while exploring the island’s origins of its celebrated gender equality. Since 2009, Iceland has ranked at the top of the Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries according to their gender equality.  What many people outside of Iceland don’t know is that this equality has its roots in agriculture, and can still be found there today.  Icelandic dairy farming has traditionally been seen as “a woman’s business,” and it is the wife who generally runs the farm. The author would like to thank Baldur Helgi Benjamínsson from Landssamband kúabænda, Áslaug Helgadóttir from Landbúnaðarháskóli Íslands, Jón Þór Jósepsson from KS, and the United States Fulbright Foundation for assistance with this article.