Iceland's optimist

''When presidential elections were approaching and we knew three male candidates were going to run, Iceland wanted at least one woman's face among them,'' recalls President Vigdis Finnbogadottir, smiling.

Though today she is enthusiastically caught up by the challenges of her job, she admits that in 1980, when she was administrative director of Reykjavk's city theater, she was reluctant to become her country's chief of state.

''For some time it was very difficult for me at the theater,'' she says, ''because phone calls were coming from all over the country to urge me to run. I had the mind to tell them, 'She has left for China and is not coming back.' You do not see yourself as other people do. I was quite surprised that other people saw something in me that could be representative of Iceland.''

As she points out, she was elected not because she was head of a political party, as are Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, but because she was perceived to be the best person for the job. ''The President of Iceland is not a political person,'' she explains. ''I've never been involved in politics or even belonged to any political party.''

Under the circumstances her election in this tiny northern democracy (approximately the size of Kentucky), which has the world's oldest parliament, attracted worldwide attention.

Ironically, despite predictions by the opposition, the majority of Icelandic women did not vote for her. ''I got 33.8 percent of the vote, which proves that the ladies of this country didn't vote for me,'' she says. ''On the contrary, I think they were rather reluctant, because otherwise I would have gotten 50 percent at least.

''Many ladies do not have confidence in themselves because in the male society they're used to having men run the whole thing,'' she continues. ''They don't have confidence in themselves, so why should they have confidence in another woman?''

In the forthcoming 18-month cultural exposition in the US, ''Scandinavia Today,'' President Vigdis has been selected to to represent all of the Scandinavian countries.

The changing attitudes of and toward women in Iceland began in 1975 with an event called the Women's Day, when women in Iceland went on strike.

''In Reykjavk there were between 20,000 and 30,000 women in the main square, '' she says. ''In small villages and towns all over Iceland, women left their homes and said to their husbands, 'Okay, you take over.' Even television was paralyzed. The gentlemen in television had to organize themselves to bring the children to work. They had to arrange them in rooms and supervise them. Meanwhile, we were having fun. We went down to the square to this tremendous meeting. In the evening, radio reporters called all around the country to ask the men how they managed without their wives, and they described things in the most hilarious ways.

''Then, as often, nothing happened for a long time,'' she continues. ''There was an ebb, not a flow, and the ladies were thinking, 'Good heavens, why did we organize that for a whole year, and nothing has come of it? But now it is coming gradually.''

As a high school student, shortly after World War II, Vigdis Finnbogadottir was preparing to enter a university. ''I was meditating about what I should do, '' she recalls, ''whether I should stay at home, study medicine, and become a doctor, or whether I should go out into the world somewhere else to study.

''Both of my parents had studied abroad, and due to the war there was a great deal of discussion about Europe. I remember as a child I hoped they wouldn't destroy it all before I could come and see it, and I think that was what finally influenced me to go abroad. I was very enthusiastic about art and literature, so I chose France. I began my studies at Grenoble, where I studied mostly French. Later, I went to the Sorbonne, where I took literature, theater literature, and then later in Copenhagen, theater history. So from the beginning my interests were always oriented toward the theater.

''The funny thing is that with all my theater work, I always said, 'I don't want to be on stage. Behind the scenes, that's my job.'. . .'' She pauses to reflect and chuckle. ''. . . And now I'm standing on stage all the time.''

Of her private life, President Vigdis says, ''It's a privilege to be an Icelander, because I can take my car whenever I wish, drive downtown, and visit my friends. Things haven't changed that much. Now, I have a little girl, nine years old, and I have protected her as much as possible from the limelight. So she doesn't quite realize my position. Sometimes she says, 'I don't like to be the daughter of a president,' because when I tell her I have to meet an ambassador at 2 o'clock, she says, 'Well, tell him to come tomorrow.' Then I have to explain that I'm in such a position that I can't ask the gentleman to come tomorrow.''

As citizens of a small country, Icelanders have the advantage of ready access to their President. Twice a week on Monday mornings and afternoons citizens can come, by appointment, to discuss their problems with her. Some come to introduce their clubs or associations, and others to talk about something more personal, such as a legal problem. ''Now, I can't do anything about it because I'm nonpolitical,'' she says. ''I sign the papers, but I can't tell judges what to do. If I did I'd be a dictator. Psychologically, it is good for someone to talk to the President, and know afterward that the President knows about their problem.''

The President points with pride to the fact that Iceland has 100 percent employment, which she calls a luxury, adding, ''But that is the vicious circle. When you invest in building new houses, and you have constant work, you have to get the money from somewhere, and that creates inflation. We have had a terrible inflation here, but I think we are among the few nations of the world where inflation is decreasing, not going up.''

About Iceland itself, the President is a confirmed optimist. ''We may only be 230,000 people in this country,'' she says, ''but we run this society as if we were 2 million. We have television, radio, a national theater, a municipal theater, a symphony orchestra, and an opera. . . . we have everything. We have been investing, we have been energetic, and we are very independent. That's why I'm optimistic. If you're pessimistic it only slows you down.''

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