Märta Leijon was a female political pioneer in Bondeförbundet (the Farmers’ League) and played an important role in the resolution on female priests made in 1958. She was also an author and a commentator on rural matters.
Märta Leijon was born in 1893 into an agricultural family from Kållerstad in Småland. She trained to become a teacher at a junior school. However, she had to give this up once her husband became ill with a lung infection due to the high risk of contamination. She then began to write and produced an extensive series of novels and children’s books based on rural life. Her writing reflected her intimate knowledge of the countryside and of agriculture, in particular of women’s work, their conditions, responsibilities and significance to rural society. She also became active in the farmers’ political movement. She wrote on rural matters and farming politics in countless newspaper articles, pamphlets and books. In 1932 she helped set up Svenska Landsbygdens kvinnoförbund (the Swedish rural women’s association), which later became Centerkvinnorna (the association for the female members of the Centre Party). She wrote the association’s first agenda, served as its first chair and spent her whole life working on behalf of the association, in particular with the comprehensive educational activities for rural women. She, like the association, had close ties to the Swedish church: both her father and her husband were church wardens, a position viewed as highly respectable at the time.
Märta Leijon greatest and most significant contribution was her work on behalf of women’s rights to enter the priesthood in the Swedish church. She was one of the few politically aligned representatives on the commission established in 1946 by Tage Erlander, the minister for education, to investigate the question of female priests. Despite her extensive experience and knowledge she still felt like an outsider. She later wrote that the “other representatives were extremely learned people and I felt in many ways inferior”, but also that the job involved a “Christian duty to investigate the matter”. In addition, she felt a responsibility toward “the people of the countryside and particularly towards rural women”. She prepared well, sold her parental farm, which she had taken over after leaving her husband, and moved to Uppsala in order to “obtain the necessary skills at the university and the library of the bastion of all kinds of educational matters”. The notes she kept from the investigation process reveal how thorough her studies had been. She used them to produce four lectures on women’s history from antiquity to the modern period, which she later published as a book.
The commission which Märta Leijon was a part of was not unanimous. A minority were completely opposed to female priests. The majority proposed that women could become priests but under the same conditions which had been set forth in an earlier, unimplemented, proposal from 1923. A woman could only serve and take up service in a parish which already had a male priest. When the commission released its findings in 1950 Märta Leijon was the only one to demand with a detailed proviso that women and men should be able to serve as priests according to the same conditions. Her proviso served as the basis for the government proposal of 1957 and the decision made at the church council of 1958. “We are not primarily gendered beings but rather born as citizens of God’s kingdom”, she wrote in her proviso. These words were used as a motto for the exhibition which, in 2008, toured Sweden on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the right of women to become priests.
Märta Leijon continued to fight for women’s rights from both within and beyond her party. She also made her opinions on other issues heard. For example, she was an activist for those with hearing impairments. Her children’s book Nils Handelsman, released just after the Second World War, also implies her particular stance towards Judaism: the main character was a Jewish merchant and repeatedly behaved as a saviour and benefactor. At this time many of her books were also released in Finnish and she donated all the profits from these publications to various aid organisations and individuals in need in the heavily war-ravaged Finland.
Märta Leijon died in 1971 in Smålandsstenar. She is buried alongside her parents at Kållerstad cemetery.