Eva Åsbrink was the first Swedish woman to gain a doctorate in theology. She was a politician, a public opinion debator, and a school principal.
Eva Åsbrink was born in Helsinki in 1912. Her mother was visiting her parental home at the time and happened to give birth there. Eva Åsbrink’s maternal grandfather was the manager of the Arabia porcelain factory in Helsinki. Eva Åsbrink has described her childhood as joyful and free from constraints. Her father, Ernst Åsbrink, was an assistant pastor in Västeråker, Dalby, Balingsta, and Uppsala-Näs. The family initially lived at the Västeråker parsonage but later moved to Gävle when Eva Åsbrink was ten years old.
After attending a girls’ school in Gävle, Eva Åsbrink enrolled at Uppsala university to read theology. She also dreamt of being an artist. In Uppsala she became the club-master of the Gästrike-Hälsinge Nation (a student body). In addition to reading theology she also studied pedagogy, Nordic languages, and literature. She gained a Bachelor of theology in 1937, followed by a Bachelor of arts in 1938. Her first teaching job, which she held from 1939-1940, was at Eksjö, and she then taught in Helsingborg from 1940-1941. During the autumn of 1941 she moved to Skara where she had a job as an assistant teacher at the Katedralskola (cathedral school). She then worked as a teacher in Lidköping from 1958-1961, after which she returned to Skara to serve as principal at the Katedralskola. She succeeded Gustaf Holmstedt, the man who became her husband, and remained in post until 1978. She took her role as teacher seriously, and engaged deeply with her students and conscientiously treated girls and boys even-handedly.
Eva Åsbrink was as interested in church matters as she was in politics. She was active in the Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetarparti (SAP) (Social Democratic workers’ party of Sweden) and held a variety of posts as a party-political representative. From 1969-1976 she was a member of parliament for the Social Democrat party. Despite being part of a political group she did not always feel at home within the group. She eventually left SAP and, together with Gösta Söderlund, she set up the Nya Parti (new party) in 1979. The party put up candidates in local elections from 1980-1985.
In 1962 Eva Åsbrink defended her thesis, entitled Studier i den svenska kyrkans syn på kvinnans ställning i samhället åren 1809-1866. She thus became the first woman in Sweden to gain her doctorate in theology. Her thesis – as the title implies – concerned the position of women within the church during the 1800s, and it caused a certain commotion, particularly within the Swedish Church. It was not just the subject matter but also the fact that she was a woman and a theological researcher that met with considerable opposition. She was encouraged to write ‘a normal book’ and her opponent made light of her subject matter.
Through her doctorate Eva Åsbrink brought an awareness to the usefulness of also applying a gender perspective to religious matters and she became an important pioneer of research into gender studies and the church. In order to become the first woman with a theology doctorate Eva Åsbrink required both audacity and perseverance. She did, however, receive support from academics outside the sphere of theology, including from the legal historian Professor Gerhard Haffström and the history professors Sten Carlsson and Bengt Hildebrand.
Eva Åsbrink was a very active woman within many societal issues and within her own profession. She was protective of the situation of and improvements for Skara’s youth, the role of the church within society, the significance of a cultural life, and the importance of equality of the sexes.
In 1976 Eva Åsbrink published an autobiographical book entitled Fyra ögon för att leva, in collaboration with her husband Gustaf Holmstedt. When she died in 2001, at the age of 89, she was still leading an active life.