Finnbogadóttir, Vigdís (Iceland)
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir took office as president, a traditionally non-political position with primarily ceremonial duties, on 1 Aug. 1980, becoming the first woman in the world to be elected head of state in a parliamentary democracy. A popular incumbent, she was subsequently re-elected for a further three terms in 1984, 1988 and 1992 before standing down on 31 July 1996.
Finnbogadóttir was born in Reykjavík on 15 April 1930, the daughter of a civil engineer and a senior nurse. After leaving Reykjavík College in 1949, she attended the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne in France, the University of Uppsala in Sweden and Copenhagen University in Denmark, studying French language and literature, drama and theatre history. She then graduated in English, French and education at the University of Iceland.
Having worked in experimental theatre and the performing arts, she served from 1972–80 as director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company. She also presented cultural programming on Icelandic state television and was a member of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Affairs in the Nordic Countries from 1976–80.
Although Finnbogadóttir had no previous formal involvement in politics, she was well regarded by leftist and feminist opinion in Iceland because of her prominent opposition in the 1960s and 1970s to the US military presence in the country and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization base at Keflavík. A divorced single mother, she was persuaded in 1980 to run for the state presidency with the support of the influential Icelandic women’s movement.
Following a closely-contested election on 29 June 1980, Finnbogadóttir secured 33.6% of the votes cast to narrowly defeat three other male candidates. Despite her largely symbolic position, she took a leading role in promoting Iceland as a cultural ambassador, travelling extensively on the world stage, and was an active environmental campaigner. Reflecting her enhanced national standing, she was re-elected three times (twice unopposed) in 1984, 1988 and 1992.
After leaving office in 1996, she became founding chair of the Council of Women World Leaders at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the USA. Then in 1998 she was designated United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Goodwill Ambassador and appointed president of the UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology.