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Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, upon being asked about the underrepresentation of women in politics, had this to say:

I’m not sure that you will ever have a 50/50 thing because it’s a fact of society that the caring role, whatever people may say about it and whatever the causes are, women play a significantly greater part of filling the caring role in our communities, which inevitably will place some limits on their capacity. Some people may say, “What a terrible thing to say”.  It is not a terrible thing to say, it just happens to be the truth, and occasionally you’ve just got to recognise that and say it. It shouldn’t be sort of – the mainstream should not be too timid to say things occasionally.

(See, for instance, the ABC for more.)

So, this is an interesting thing to say.

It is of course factual – ‘the truth’ – to say that women play a disproportionately large role in caring in our communities. The unsaid thing is that some people think this is a good thing and others do not.

Telling half the story has inevitably led to confusion and a split response. Responses to this comment seem to be split between “good on him for telling the truth” and “he’s had his day”. There are of course also the people who seem to think that Mr Howard was saying that women belong in the home and agree with him that that’s a good thing – which he probably meant on some level, given how concerned he was about people thinking he said a terrible thing, but didn’t say.

Skipping over the causes to get to the result means we don’t have to talk about the implications or solutions. By starting a conversation with a valid question and then shutting it down with context-free facts, we get to skip over any arguments in favour of strawmen. The strawman in this case is that the idea that it is in any way controversial to say that women fulfil most caring responsibilities. No one is actually arguing with this. What people are fighting back against is the state of affairs that leaves women with a disproportionate amount of caring responsibilities and little opportunity to stand for election.

Stopping the conversation by saying that that’s the way it is means that we don’t get to talk about how to make that state of affairs different. Setting up a false embattled “mainstream” means that there’s another barrier: if you try to question or add to anything the timid truth teller is saying, you’re on the bad side and also can’t face facts.

Plus, let’s be real. We know that the call to an apparent timid mainstream (presumably in opposition to strident extremists who want political representation!) is aimed at making benign and acceptable the fact that women are not well represented in politics – and you’d better shut up if you think differently.

This brick wall in defence of ‘the truth’ also obscures and blocks off conversation about additional causes as to why women might not be well represented in politics. Like, you know, entrenched misogyny in political spaces.

Make caring responsibilities more valued and shared more equitably, and we might have a good shot at the time, energy, and other resources necessary to go about eradicating that misogyny. Until then, unsatisfying, weirdly circular arguments like Mr Howard’s are going to keep happening, replacing the truly underrepresented political minority of women with figments made of straw.