There was laughter in church this morning.
Looking at the hymn “Nearer, my God, to thee”, we looked briefly at the story of Sarah Flower Adams, the writer of the hymn. Mrs Adams’ father was known as a radical writer and editor who had been to prison at one time for criticizing a bishop. Expressing relief that such laws had been repealed brought chuckles in the congregation.
Laughter arose again over the terms of Sarah Flower’s marriage to William Adams in 1834; a radical and a feminist, she insisted that a “no housekeeping” clause be inserted into the marriage agreement.
Sweeping the kitchen floor at lunchtime, memories of a woman who would love to have been in the place of Sarah Flower Adams came to mind.
Staying at the offices of a small Filipino non-governmental organization in 2001, there was a meal at tables set in the courtyard of a building which had offices and accommodation. The meal ran very late and people talked for hours.
There was much to discuss because a lot of work was being done, but as the time passed, I became mindful of a woman hovering at the corner of the courtyard. She was waiting to clear things from the meal.
Some plates were finished and she gathered them up. I got up to help her, but no-one else moved. Nothing was said and I was fearful of having committed some social misdemeanor. When the meal finally broke up, the woman moved around efficiently clearing everything away. The last people were saying “Goodnight” and going out through the compound gates. The woman worked on as the gates closed.
Looking at the woman, I asked one of the group with whom we had eaten. “What about the maid? Where will she sleep?”.
Without any expression of concern, he replied, “She has a sleeping mat. She will sleep on the office floor.”
“Has she no home or family?” I inquired.
“Yes”, he replied, “but it is too late for her to go home now, she must be here in the morning”.
There was no need for the meal to have run so long. How could the group talk about working for development and justice when it couldn’t even be troubled to allow a woman time to go home to her husband and children? I was baffled.
Perhaps it was more a matter of class than gender, but it was not the first time I had watched people at meetings of groups concerned with justice remain completely oblivious to the people around them, and it has happened many times since. Inevitably, the people ignored seem almost always to be women because it is work where large numbers of women are recruited.
I cannot think that Jesus would have been so oblivious to someone that at the end of a long day they could not even go home to their children. Sarah Flower’s “no housekeeping” clause of course meant that a maid did all the work, it was not a great blow for equality; but a hundred and sixty years after her death, would it be too much to sometimes ask who it is that does all the housekeeping? How many millions of women are out there standing and waiting, ignored and unnoticed?