Why Scandinavian women make the rest of the world jealous

Icelanders are among the happiest and healthiestpeople on Earth. They publish more books per capita than any other country, and they havemore artists. They boast the most prevalent belief in evolution — and elves, too. Iceland is the world’s most peaceful nation (the cops don’t even carry guns), and the best place for kids. Oh, and they had a lesbian head of state, the world’s first. Granted, the national dish is putrefied shark meat, but you can’t have everything.

Iceland is also the best place to have a uterus, according to the folks at the World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks countries based on where women have the most equal access to education and healthcare, and where they can participate most fully in the country’s political and economic life.

According to the 2013 report, Icelandic women pretty much have it all. Their sisters in Finland, Norway, and Sweden have it pretty good, too: those countries came in second, third and fourth, respectively. Denmark is not far behind at number seven.

The U.S. comes in at a dismal 23rd, which is a notch down from last year. At least we’re not Yemen, which is dead last out of 136 countries.

So how did a string of countries settled by Vikings become leaders in gender enlightenment? Bloodthirsty raiding parties don’t exactly sound like models of egalitarianism, and the early days weren’t pretty. Medieval Icelandic law prohibited women from bearing arms or even having short hair. Viking women could not be chiefs or judges, and they had to remain silent in assemblies. On the flip side, they could request a divorce and inherit property. But that’s not quite a blueprint for the world’s premier egalitarian society.

The change came with literacy, for one thing. Today almost everybody in Scandinavia can read, a legacy of the Reformation and early Christian missionaries, who were interested in teaching all citizens to read the Bible. Following a long period of turmoil, Nordic states also turned to literacy as a stabilizing force in the late 18th century. By 1842, Sweden had made education compulsory for both boys and girls.

Researchers have found that the more literate the society in general, the more egalitarian it is likely to be, and vice versa. But the literacy rate is very high in the U.S., too, so there must be something else going on in Scandinavia. Turns out that a whole smorgasbord of ingredients makes gender equality a high priority in Nordic countries.

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