Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir – Iceland’s Pioneer of Women’s Rights

Today Iceland is known for its gender equality and it was this week’s heroine who paved the path for this reputation. Meet Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, a journalist, educator and politician and the driving force behind the campaign for women’s suffrage in Iceland.

Bríet was born in 1856 at Böðvarshólar, a small farm in North Iceland’s Vesturhóp, the first of four surviving children. They grew up to stories of heroes and monsters and were told the tales of the hidden people, the fairyfolk. Although there was no school for young children at the time, Bríet longed for knowledge and before she could even read she was recounting stories and the Sunday sermons to the younger children. It didn’t happen often that news found their way to the remote farm village, but whenever a newspaper did reach their household, it was a big event for everyone and the young girl loved the discussions that ensued. She also loved life on a farm, where the stories from her childhood seemed to come to life. Where the sky told of the coming days and where nothing ever stayed the same for long. And where riding a pony could be the greatest joy on earth.

Careless moments like this became scarce when her mother fell ill, being confined to her bed for four years. Bríet was only 13, yet she had to take care of the household in her mother’s stead. And for the first time she realized that she was treated differently than her brother. When he came home after a day’s work, he would be free to do as he pleased while her duty was to wait on him. Their father asked for his opinion while hers was not wanted, even though she was older. Soon she realized that her future would either be that of a wife or a servant. Higher education was out of reach entirely, not only because it was expensive but because no schools would accept her, a woman. She later said that she would have “given any other prospect of happiness offered in life for the possibility of satisfying [her] thirst for knowledge.”

Luckily this was the time of a great shift in Icelandic society and politics. The country advocated for its independence from Denmark, inspiring not only poets but the youth as well and a teenage Bríet wrote her first feminist article on women’s education – although she kept it a secret for now. Finally in 1874, a thousand years after the first acknowledged settlement, Iceland was granted home rule. Soon the first constitution and an established parliament, the Alþing, followed. Bríet, now 18, was moved and oh so thankful to be alive at a time like this. And when in that same year a school for girls was opened in Reykjavík there was no stopping her.

Determined to finally get the education she so longed for, she left her now widowed mother and moved in with a cousin in the city. This cousin also happened to be a prolific politician of the time and the owner of a vast collection of books, which proved a well of knowledge for the young woman. She stayed for two years. You might wonder what happened to the goal of attending school. Well, I mentioned before that it was quite an expensive endeavor and Bríet’s family was not exactly rich. But eventually she secured a loan that would allow her to attend school for one winter. Although the other girls in her class had been spending the previous year in school already, she surpassed them all and came out on top of her class. She had passed the exam for 2nd class now, but that was all that was open to her. The only thing she could do was resort to teaching and that is what she did. But again she found herself unsatisfied in her quest for knowledge.

Once more it was the zeitgeist that came to her rescue. In 1882, two years after her graduation, women gained partial suffrage – at least widows and “independent unmarried women” were allowed to vote now. In 1885 Bríet found an interesting article in the local newspaper ‘Fjallkonan.’ It was written by the editor himself, Valdimar Ásmundsson, and it centered on women’s suffrage. And Bríet decided to send in a polished version of her own article; after all she had written about the topic years ago! And in that same year her article was published as the first newspaper article ever written by an Icelandic woman. Two years later she was asked to give a lecture on the position and rights of women, the first woman to do so, and her performance was well received by audience and press alike.

You might think this is where her career took off, but you’d be mistaken. In 1887 she married Valdimar, the editor who published her article, and dedicated herself entirely to the role of wife and soon mother of two. Her husband tried to convince her to start a career in the newspaper business, editing a women’s paper but she wouldn’t be persuaded. Only in 1894 would she return to the political landscape, founding a women’s society in Reykjavík that propagated gender equality. And a year later she would go into journalism after all, founding Iceland’s first women’s magazine, Kvennablaðið (which literally means “women’s magazine). The paper focused on home and educational reform and quickly became popular with the country’s population and was widely circulated.

In 1902 Bríet’s husband suddenly died. Not only did she find herself a single mother now but she was also left alone with not only her magazine but his publications as well. For a while she took the workload, editing his paper as well as a small journal for children and of course her own magazine. After two years she decided it was time that she got a break and booked a trip to Scandinavia. Travelling Denmark, Norway and Sweden she met many interesting women and saw much and so the trip became a study trip as well as a well-earned holiday. For the first time Bríet realized there was an international women’s movement and in 1906 she was invited to the congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in Copenhagen.

Inspired she returned home and promptly opened the conversation about women’s suffrage. While she had been abroad however the feminist groups had dispersed; her original women’s society had ceased to be political after its president died and there were no feminist publications left. But that only motivated Bríet even more and in 1907 the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association was founded in Reykjavík. She began travelling around the country, organizing public meetings and founding branches of her association. In that same year women were allowed to be elected to city council – an early success! It was however difficult to find women willing to even stand for election, but Bríet stepped forward and soon three others followed. All of them were elected to Reykjavík city council in 1908. Bríet got to work immediately and introduced many educational reforms, like school physicians and nurses, swimming lessons for girls, playgrounds and many more. Bríet’s work now truly bore fruit. In 1911 women were given the same rights in education, scholarships and all schools were opened to women as well as men. In 1913 she was elected for a second term in the city council.

Along the way Bríet also took care of her children’s education and in 1910 her eldest, Laufey Valdimarsdóttir was the first woman to graduate from Reykjavik High School with the highest grade possible! Both, Laufey and her younger brother Héðinn Valdimarsson became politicians themselves. But that came much later.

In 1920 Bríet’s quest was won: women received equal suffrage rights. Coincidentally it was also the 25th anniversary of her magazine, the Kvennablaðið. It had propagated all of the rights for women that had slowly been implemented since and although it had lost a lot of its following one its focus shifted to more political topics, the paper prevailed. Now that  the vote was granted, all women who had previously been indifferent to the suffragists’ work streamed to the polls, eager to make their voices heard. And Bríet saw her chance. After she had unsuccessfully tried to run for parliament in 1916, she tried again ten years later. Unfortunately she was not elected once again or she would have been the first woman in a country’s parliament, but as it is she was the first woman to run for a seat.

Then it became quiet around our brave suffragette. Her Women’s Association became less of a partisan group and instead focused to support women in their daily lives. The struggle was over and Bríet returned to her life as an editor. For over ten years she was able to enjoy the world she helped to create until she passed away in 1940. She lived to see the fruit of her labour and made the world a better place for her children and theirs – and she did it on her terms.

image credits:

1: “Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, Icelandic leader of women’s suffrage” by Magnús Ólafsson (ca. 1886 – 1890) – Link
2: Picture of the young Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, ca. 1880 – Link
3: Valdímar Ásmundsson, his wife Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir and their children Laufey and Héðinn around 1900. – Link
4: undated photograph of Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, probably around 1880 – Link
5: image obtained from Óðinn, May 1908, page 12

Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk – Queen of the Reindeer

Did you know that Alaska used to be Russian territory? It was only sold to the US around 1870 and suddenly the social landscape changed. Into these tumultuous times today’s heroine was born and against all odds, she became one of the richest people in the state. Hear the story of Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk, Sinrock Mary, the Queen of the Reindeer.

When Alaska changed government, Changunak was born. Her mother was of the Native Inupiat people and her father was Russian. Likely a merchant or fur trader, he came to Alaska to make money, but returned home once his contract with the trading company ran out – alone. Their fate was not a singular one; when the Russian traders departed, they left behind a new generation of children with mixed heritage.

Changunak’s childhood was never boring. She grew up in St. Michael, a trading post where lots and lots of foreign ships docked and where there was always something to see. She observed the strangest people coming from these ships, dressed in foreign clothing and speaking languages she had never heard before. The girl soaked up everything she saw and before she was past her teens she spoke Russian and English besides her native tongue, Inupiat, and several of its dialects. But not only did she learn about other cultures but also her own. Her mother taught her the ancient ways of her people. She learned about herbalism, how to hunt and set traps and how to tan and sew animal hide, the trades of her ancestors. But most importantly she learned generosity, as was the Inupiat way.

At some point, when she grew from child to woman, she would receive the traditional chin tattoos. Presumably not much later, Changunak met a young Inupiat hunter named Charles Antisarlook, and in 1889 they married. The couple settled in Cape Nome, not far from St. Michael, where they soon met the man who would change their lives. Captain Michael A. Healy was an American who had been sailing the Alaskan sea for more than two decades and served as the only contact to the government for many remote villages. So even though he looked a bit unusual to the Natives, being half black, he was always a welcome guest. When the Antisarlooks met him, he was looking for interpreters to help him document the population of the coastline and upon finding out that the pair spoke English, he hired them on the spot. I suspect that this is when she got the name she was known by: Mary. And soon they set sail on board the USS Bear.

During their travels the Captain once more witnessed the Native Alaskan’s fight against the long, harsh winters, against starvation, and an idea that had been brewing in his head for years finally took form. The Chukchi people of Siberia were herding reindeers, why couldn’t the Alaskans? They just needed to ship the deer over, because at that point there were none in North America. Of course such a plan needed time but in 1892, only two years after he had delivered them back home, the Captain stood at the door of the Antisarlook family once again. This time he asked them to come with him to Siberia to help with the negotiations. And once again they sailed out on the Bear.

Arriving at their destination, they met up with a delegation of Chukchi and soon enough Changunak was called up to translate, being the only one in the party to speak Russian. She could however not fully understand the Siberian dialect, which angered one of the men who struck her right across the face. She did not flinch but instead stood tall, calmy asking in Russian: “Is there anyone who can understand what I’m saying?” Slowly one of the Chukchi raised his hand. “Come over here and help me,” she demanded. And he came and stood next to her. He would translate his comrades’ words into Russian which she then would translate into English for the crew of the Bear. From there negotiations went smoothly and the ship returned to Alaska, having secured 1300 reindeers to arrive over the course of the next four years. The Teller Reindeer Station was opened to teach the Alaskan population how to care for the new animals and husband Charlie began an apprenticeship there. During that time Changunak noticed that contrary to their original purpose, the reindeer were exclusively distributed amongst missionary posts and she complained. Eventually the government gave in to her constant pressure and Charlie and Changunak were the first Inupiat to own their own herd of reindeer.

Two years later their herd had doubled and now Charlie’s two brothers had become herders as well to help them out. They build their own reindeer station in the small settlement of Sinuk or Sinrock, which is where Changunak’s more familiar name comes from: Sinrock Mary. Their herd was now one of the largest in the country and that winter the government asked them for a favor. There were people trapped in the ice and they asked for them to send their herd up there to save them from starvation. Following the Inupiat principle of generosity they decided Charlie would go North with a large part of the herd while Changunak would keep house. It was a hard winter. Seal and fish were scarce and she could not afford to lose a single deer, who knew when her husband would return – if he would.

Her husband did return, albeit two years later around 1900, with 100 deer lost and in terrible health. He had contracted the measles and despite her care, he died quickly. Changunak did not have time to grieve long though. She had just buried her husband as word arrived that she might not keep her herd, being a woman and all. Finally she won the right to keep half of the couples 500 animals. But her troubles were far from over. In 1902 the gold rush had arrived in Alaska and miners were flooding the small settlements, taking the reindeer as easy ressources. Parts of Changunak’s herd was stolen to serve as packing animals or shot for food and their remains left to rot on the tundra. The officials were worrying that soon her entire herd would be gone and decided it would be best to take the animals from her and move them farther north to safer ground. But Changunak would have none of it. Instead she went south with her stock, resettling in the village of Unalakleet.

Safe from the miners, she was now confronted with another problem: word had gotten out that the Reindeer Queen was widowed and suitors lined up. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the biggest herd in the state and thus the woman it belonged to. She refused them all. But not only the suitors wanted their piece of the cake, Charlie’s brothers too claimed that the herd belonged to them; they referred to the ancient Inupiat ways according to which the widow only gets what the brothers give her. She reminded them that they were living under white man’s laws now and according to those the woman inherits the man’s property. The legal battle went on for seven years but eventually she won. She was now the undisputed owner of the largest reindeer herd in the entire Arctic.

Changunak did marry again eventually, a tall, quiet hunter called Andrew Andrewuk. This time her husband did not take any part in the reindeer business and under her proficient management her herd grew to 1500 animals at its peak, making her a true Queen of the Reindeer. And she passed on her craft. As she did not have any biological children, she adopted orphans as epidemics were decimating the population and taught them all she knew. Continuing to follow the tradition of generosity Changunak never turned away anyone in need and shared everything she had with those less fortunate. Thus she became known not only for her success as a businesswoman but also as an important and beloved member of the community.
In 1914, when she was nearing her fifties, her children could barely remember a time without reindeer and it was then when the last big catastrophe hit. The Inupiat and other tribes were forbidden from selling reindeer to the white population to secure their livelihoods, but one white man, Carl Lomen, managed to get his hands on a herd anyways, through a Finnish herder to whom the restrictions did not apply. Immediately he began building a business American-style, steadily driving the Natives out of business. Changunak lost her best herders to him and her best customers, she began losing animals as she could not supervise them all at once. And again she began to complain, rallying the other deerkeepers to do the same. Fifteen years they fought, then the Great Depression came along and prices plummeted, Mr. Lomen was in financial trouble. Finally in 1937 his herd was sold and the Reindeer Act was passed, which forbids anyone except for Alaskan Natives to own reindeer in the territory.

Now almost 70, Changunak realized that the world around her had changed fundamentally. There were fewer and fewer reindeer now and she became too old to care for her own herd. Two of her grandchildren moved in with her to lend her a had. She became known as the village elder who had known the Russians and people would bring her hides to make into shoes, the way her ancestors had done it, the way her mother had taught her.

On a winter’s day in 1948 Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk, Sinrock Mary was pronounced dead. She received a communal burial and is remembered dearly by her community, not only as the Reindeer Queen, but also as someone who kept the Inupiat way alive against all odds. Until this day whenever reindeer are seen in the north people think of her. And sometimes people say they can still see her large herd roaming the hills.

image credits:

1: “My Great-Great Grandmother Sinrock Mary (1870 -1948)” – Jodi Velez-Newell’s Eskimo Heritage Page
2: “Reindeer Committee with Esther Oliver, Sinrock Mary, Mrs. Willie Aconran [sic] with children, Clyde and Pauline, Kliktarek [sic] corral,” 1938 – © Anchorage Museum (AMRC-b75-175-161)
3: “Sinrock Mary and Esther Oliver. Klikiktarek [sic], Alaska,” 1938 – © Anchorage Museum (AMRC-b75-175-160)
4: “Sinrock Mary. Klikiktarek [sic], Alaska,” 1938 – © Anchorage Museum (AMRC-b75-175-158)