Feb. 1, 2022

The Rise of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

The Rise of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

February 1, 2009. Icelandic politician Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is sworn in as the country's prime minister, becoming the first woman to hold that post in Iceland and the world's first openly gay head of government.

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Cold Open

It’s Autumn 1994 in Reykjavik, Iceland, in a packed meeting hall at the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party, or the SDP.

Party officials sit on stage in front of a packed audience filled with reporters and loyal party members. They are waiting to hear the outcome of an election to determine who will be the party’s next chairperson.

The front runner is a man named Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson who’s been chair since the 1980s. But there are those in the ranks of the SDP who are ready for change; many of these party members support Hannibalsson’s more progressive opponent: Johanna Sigurdardottir, a woman in her 50s who currently serves as Iceland’s Minister of Social Affairs.

As Johanna walks on stage, her supporters in the crowd cheer and applaud. Johanna smiles and waves before taking her seat on the dais. Johanna is nervous though, still confident. She has a history of supporting causes like welfare reform and equal pay for women in the workplace. She hopes her reputation as a champion for social justice is enough to win her a victory.

A hush falls over the crowd as a party official takes to the podium to announce the winner. When Johanna hears the name “Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson” echo through the hall, the smile momentarily falls from her face.

Johanna is disappointed and so are her supporters in the crowd. They harbor no doubt that, if she were a man, Johanna would have won this contest. The unfairness burns within her. But Johanna is a skilled politician. She smiles and claps along as Hannibalsson makes his way to the podium to deliver his victory speech. 

Johanna listens as Hannibalsson pays respect to her and describes her as one of Iceland’s greatest advocates of social justice and hardest working public servants.

But for Johanna, his words are cold comfort. As she listens to Hannibalsson's drone on, she can’t help but wonder if there’s another reason the party voted against her. Johanna suspects she was rejected because too many of her fellow party members know something that, as of yet, the Icelandic public does not. Johanna is gay and has been in a secret relationship with a woman for almost ten years.

After Hannibalsson’s speech, Johanna is invited to the podium to address the assembly. Many expect that Johanna will gracefully pay tribute to the new leader. But instead, Johanna is defiant. She looks out over the audience and sees her own anger reflected in the faces of many party members, especially the women. So she raises her fist in the air and delivers a declaration that will become an iconic feminist slogan in the coming decades.

“Minn Timi Munn Koma!”, “My time will come!”

In the aftermath of her defeat, Johanna will break off from the SDP and form her own left-wing movement called the National Awakening that will advance her social justice agenda and further her career. And indeed, fifteen years later, Johanna’s time will come. In the midst of a global financial crisis, the people of Iceland will turn to Johanna to rescue the country from economic ruin; and on February 1st, 2009, she will be sworn in as Iceland’s first woman Prime Minister and the first openly gay head of government in the world.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is February 1st, 2009: The Rise of Johanna Sigurdardottir.

Act One: Jonina

It’s the summer of 1985 in Reykjavik, Iceland, 24 years before Johanna is sworn in as Prime Minister.

A shy young woman named Jónína Leósdóttir lingers at the back of a group of 25 other women posing for a photo. These women have united for the inaugural meeting of a feminist committee to fight for equal pay between the sexes.

Jonina cares deeply about feminist issues but she is not a politician. She’s an upcoming writer in her early thirties who’s been included on the committee to represent the arts world in the discussions. But while she has a limited grasp of politics, she has a boundless interest for people. And today her eye is drawn to the committee’s smartly-dressed, high-profile chairwoman: Johanna Sigurdardottir.

Jonina already knows Johanna from TV and appreciates that she’s a fierce champion of feminist causes. Jonina also knows that the 41-year-old chairwoman is married to a wealthy banker and has two sons. Jonina thinks this might give them something in common because she too is married with a son at home.

But over the following weeks, Jonina looks more and more forward to these regular committee meetings. She is surprised by her own enthusiasm for these often dry affairs. Soon, she realizes why. Jonina has become transfixed by the chairwoman. But it’s more than just admiration for her work in politics.

During those early meetings, the two women rarely speak, and when they do, it’s on some point of politics rather than anything personal. But over time, it occurs to Jonina that her attraction to the older woman has turned romantic. To her own amazement, she realizes she’s fallen in love. This sounds absurd to her because, until now, Jonina considered herself heterosexual. She’s been married to her husband for thirteen years, and in that time, she never dreamed of being unfaithful to him with anyone, male or female. But her feelings for Johanna are powerful. 

As part of her work on the women’s committee, Johanna must attend meetings all over Iceland. On one occasion, she’s invited to travel to the North East of the country and must stay overnight in a hotel. Upon learning this, Jonina quickly volunteers to accompany her. Soon, the two women travel by plane to the relatively remote location. Jonina hopes to use this opportunity to tell Johanna how she feels. She knows it will be terribly difficult. She barely knows this woman, and she’s afraid of coming across as irrational or impulsive.

After the meeting, Johanna and Jonina dine together in the mostly empty hotel restaurant. Throughout the meal, Jonina is a jumble of nerves but she eventually works up the courage to ask Johanna if she would like a glass of sherry, explaining she’s brought a bottle along for the trip. Jonina doesn’t even like sherry. But she knows it’s Johanna’s favorite.

In Johanna’s hotel room, the two ladies chink glasses and say skal. Finally, Jonina gets up the nerve to reveal the truth. In a flurry of confession she tries to, in her words, “explain the unexplainable.”

Johanna’s response is kind, but her steady expression reveals nothing. But she does offer Jonina an assurance, telling her: “You can absolutely trust me, Jonina. I’m not going to tell anyone.”

Hearing this, Jonina goes pale. Until this moment, she never considered how disastrous it would be if people found out about her declaration. It could ruin her marriage, her reputation. Jonina leaves the hotel room with the impression that her feelings are not reciprocated.

Eventually, Jonina will come to the realization that she can no longer stay with her husband. It breaks her heart to shatter a family in this way but she knows she has no choice. The feelings are too strong. She's left feeling a bit lost. 

But soon, Jonina will learn that she was wrong to assume her feelings for Johanna were unrequited. Over time, their working friendship will develop into something more significant. Johanna will leave her husband as well. And the two women will form what will become a long-term partnership. But for a time, the relationship will only exist out of the public eye. As Johanna’s political career continues to advance, she will ultimately be faced with a difficult decision: reveal her sexuality and face the consequences, or continue to live a double life.

Act Two: “My Time Will Come”

It’s October 24th, 1985 in Reykjavik, 24 years before Johanna Sigurdardottir is sworn in as Iceland’s Prime Minister.

Johanna stands on stage in front of a large audience delivering another rousing speech to supporters. She’s celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Women’s Strike, a famous feminist protest in Iceland in which 90% of women stopped work to protest pay disparity. Among the throngs of people in attendance is Jonina. She watches from a distance as the woman she loves receives thunderous applause from the crowd.

It’s been a few months since Jonina declared her love for Johanna. Since then, their friendship has evolved into a budding romance. But for now, the women have decided it must remain a secret. In 1985, gay marriage is not legal in Iceland, and many Icelanders frown on homosexuality. The women fear “a coming out” would threaten Johanna's promising career, and Jonina doesn’t wish to be responsible for that. So tonight, the two women position themselves at opposite ends of the function room, only occasionally catching each other's eyes through the crowd.

Making matters more complicated, Johanna has not yet divorced her husband. Like Jonina, she doesn’t want to break his heart or break up their family. But Johanna knows she will have to divorce him eventually. The women are willing to conceal the truth from the public, for the moment. But they’re not willing to continue to lie to their families.

Eventually, Johanna tells her husband the truth. He is heartbroken, but ultimately, understanding. When the time is right, Jonina and her young son are introduced to Johanna’s two older boys and they quickly become friends.

Around this time, Johanna is appointed as Minister of Social Affairs and Social Security, a senior position in the Icelandic government. Jonina is proud of her partner's achievements and confident that Johanna’s success will only benefit the people of Iceland. But during this time, the two women live separately and they only see each other on weekends. Over time, Jonina grows weary of being treated like a dirty secret. A growing tension between the two partners comes to a head at Johanna’s 50th birthday party.

Hundreds of friends, family, and coworkers attend the event. Jonina is present but, as usual, she keeps her distance. After everyone’s gone home, except for a handful of Johanna’s closest friends and family, a photographer requests a family photo. Jonina watches from a distance as Johanna calls over to her mother to be in the shot. Then she calls for her two adult sons. Considering how few outsiders are still here, Jonina anticipates that she might be finally invited to join Johanna in the family photo. But Johanna doesn’t even glance in her direction.

Instead, she invites her oldest son’s girlfriend to be in the picture. Jonina is devastated. Johanna’s son has been dating this girl for three months. Jonina has been her life partner for seven years.

In tears, Jonina confronts Johanna in front of everyone. Johanna pulls her into another room to calm her down. Johanna apologizes, promising that she didn’t mean to hurt Jonina's feelings. But she thought Jonina understood how difficult it is for her to acknowledge their relationship publicly. Jonina wipes her tears and warns Johanna that unless things change, their relationship is over.

Confronted by this ultimatum, Johanna asks Jonina to move in with her so they can live as a proper couple. And she makes a promise that from now on, Jonina will be standing beside her in every family photo. But for now, Johanna does not feel that she’s in a position in her career to announce their relationship to the world. It's a compromise Jonina enthusiastically agrees to.


A year later, Johanna loses her 1994 party leadership bid, declaring “My Time Will Come!”. At home, she is raw from the defeat. Jonina listens to her as she plans to start her own political party. But Jonina senses an opportunity in defeat. She points out to Johanna that her being in the closet hasn’t helped her in her political career. Some of her rivals are using it against her, treating it like a dark secret that could be exposed at any time. Perhaps it would be better, Jonina offers, if they were to come out. Jonina believes such honesty would be seen as strength and not weakness. But also if they were to live openly as a gay couple, it would be a hopeful example for other gay people everywhere.

Johanna listens to Jonina’s argument but is not immediately convinced. She is an older, more traditional person; she is not ready to come out. But as the years go on, Johanna begins to see the wisdom in her partner’s suggestion. Finally, in 2002, with same-sex marriage still not legal in Iceland, the two women register as partners in a civil union. Johanna braces for blowback but it doesn't come. Instead coming out will bolster Johanna’s popularity and set her on a course to make history.

Act Three: Prime Minister

It’s late January 2009, in Reykjavik, one week before Johanna Sigurdardottir is sworn in as Prime Minister.

In the wake of a global financial crisis, Iceland’s economy is in freefall. Thousands have lost their jobs and savings. Today, angry protestors fill the central square in Reykjavik, furious at the government's mishandling of the catastrophe. In response, Iceland’s Prime Minister resigns.

After the prime minister's resignation, Iceland’s ceremonial head of state, its president, turns to Johanna Sigurdardottir for help with running the government.

By now, Johanna is the leader of the Social Democrat Alliance, a coalition party born from the former SDP and her National Awakening party. Over decades of committed public service, Johanna has proven herself to be a conscientious and dedicated public servant, a relentless advocate for social justice, and a respected woman across the political spectrum.

And when Iceland’s president asks Johanna to be head of a new temporary, caretaker government, Johanna doesn't hesitate. But her short, three-month tenure as emergency prime minister will not be ceremonial. In a press conference, Johanna explains,  “All the ministers in my cabinet must work fast, take firm action… and rebuild the job market.”

On February 1st, 2009, Johanna is sworn in as Prime Minister, becoming the first woman in Iceland to hold the post and the first openly gay head of state in history. But the people of Iceland did not vote Johanna into power and the question of whether or not they will accept a lesbian leader remains unanswered…

Until three months later, when Johanna stands as a candidate for Prime Minister in a general election. She wins the contest by a decisive margin.

As Prime Minister, Johanna helps put Iceland’s economy on a path to recovery. She also makes good on her promise of change. On June 27th, 2010, one year into her term, same-sex marriage is legalized in Iceland. On that very day, Johanna and Jonina become one of the first LGBTQ couples to get married in Iceland. Over the years, Jonina enjoys her own successful career as a writer. She receives countless letters from young gay people around the country thanking her and Johanna for being so visible.

In September 2012, Johanna announces she will not be seeking re-election after her first term as she is ready to devote her life to her loved ones, including Jonina. Not long after she leaves office, the Board of the “LGBT Association of Iceland” presents her with a special award in recognition of her many achievements. With her wife Jonina standing proudly by her side, Johanna Sigurdardottir accepts a statue of a girl with her arm in the air. The inscription reads:

"Minn Timi Mun Koma", “My Time will Come!”


Next on History Daily. February 2nd, 1943, The Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest of WWII, ends in defeat for Nazi Germany.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.