'Does she buy clothes for you too?'
This morning I took a school assembly on the theme of Mothering Sunday. I asked the children what comes to mind when they think of mothers. The answers were concrete and practical: she looks after us, feeds us, does all the housework, does the gardening, and pays the school fees. And she buys herself clothes.
I'm not sure from the answers given how far women's emancipation has reached Warwickshire. Mothers are clearly perceived by their children as the ones who nurture the family and do most of the work at home. I'm sure the majority of the mothers concerned go out to work too, probably in professional jobs - and research suggests that women still bear the heaviest responsibilities at home even when they follow a career of their own.
Today is International Women's Day. Its roots reach back to the early years of the 20th century when women became increasingly aware of the need to press for change, and increasingly prepared to organise themselves to bring such changes about. Whilst opinion varies as to whether such a day remains useful in the UK (and patriarchal assumptions still remain in many parts of the society and the Church), there is undoubtedly a need to reform the status of women and the opportunities afforded them elsewhere. It's not many weeks since a particularly horrific rape case lifted the lid on the way women are viewed and treated in India. The struggle for education for girls in Pakistan (and neighbouring Afghanistan) has been highlighted by the shooting of Malala Yousufza and her courageous response and recovery. Sexual violence has been particularly prominent during the troubles in the Congo and remains a serious issue in many parts of Africa. The freedom of women is seriously curtailed in some Middle Eastern countries, and the penalties for transgression - or even for becoming victims of sexual crime - are severe.
Some years ago, on holiday in Ethiopia, I happened upon the grave of Sylvia Pankhurst in Addis Ababa. Along with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, she was a prominent political activist. In 1914, she established a new movement to address the needs of women who faced poverty. Work was offered to the unemployed in a new toy factory. Restaurants were opened on a non-profit basis so customers retained the dignity of paying for the food they needed but at a price they could afford. The Government was lobbied to provide a proper allowance to the wives of serving soldiers. She worked tirelessly in the cause of women whose needs were overlooked, and was not afraid to be a thorn in the flesh of respectable society.
We need such thorns in the flesh to press for change. Not in a battle between the sexes - that's futile and pointless - but in order that men and women may achieve full and equal status, dignity and freedom. It's fair to say that when women are denied their full humanity, men are diminished too. Change for the better begins in the family, as children are loved, valued and treated even-handedly whatever their gender - and given positive role models to follow. It's encouraged by institutional policies and a conscious drive for inclusion and diversity. But it needs the hearts and minds of ordinary people to become convinced that gender should not determine value, life chances or respect.
One of the notable things about Jesus was that he took women seriously in a society which frequently didn't. The roots of change are present in the Gospels, however much they may have been obscured through Christian history. We need to rediscover what they mean, and work them out in the Church, society and world of today.