The gathering tackled the questions of #MeToo head on, but there was also space for stimulating experience and learning

Three speakers at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival 2018. From left: Tracey Spicer, Sisonke Msimang and Neko Case.

                                          Feminist speakers at the Melbourne writers’ festival 2018: (L-R) Australian journalist Tracey Spicer, South African

racey Spicer declared investigative journalist Ronan Farrow “the most powerful man in the #MeToo movement”, and it did not go unnoticed that the most high-profile session on feminist issues at the Melbourne writers’ festival featured a bloke.

But there was plenty else for those interested in feminist discussion. From the sessions I saw, there was little robust debate about contentious feminist issues, but lots of nuggets of insight and a focus on women of colour talking about their experiences of race and gender.

For Farrow, whose work exposing film producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment sparked global fury about the treatment of women, this was always about power, “how powerful men who did despicable things … were protected for so long”.

There were systems in place to keep victims silent, systems that are at least cracking. Yet Farrow wasn’t entirely optimistic, worrying that the Weinstein case was idiosyncratic. Weinstein has been charged with sexual assault, and it will play out in a glare of publicity. Whether lessons learned will trickle down to other cases and other workplaces is not clear.

Farrow appeared before a sold-out crowd at the Athenaeum Theatre, with its first few rows reserved for sponsors and important folk. At a more intimate venue at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre was a session about #MeToo that proved at least as stimulating.

The Indian journalist and author Deepanjana Pal said there had been little practical improvement for women following #MeToo. But it had been gloriously disruptive to India’s conversation about women’s rights. “The norm was to keep quiet, feel shame … #MeToo has turned this upside down and made it cool to speak out.”

It also exposed a generational divide about how to force change, a schism that is relevant in Australia and elsewhere. In October last year, law student Raya Sarkar posted a crowdsourced Facebook list accusing more than 50 Indian academics of sexual harassment.

Unlike a similar list originating in the United States, the Indian version was not anonymously sourced – Sarkar collected messages, emails and phone recordings corroborating the allegations.

It was shared widely and caused a fuss, with prominent Indian feminists led by author and professor Nivedita Menon releasing a statement condemning the tactic: “This manner of naming can delegitimise the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult.”

Pal said the stoush had been “heartbreaking” because the established feminists were “incredible thinkers” who had fought for Indian women for decades. “It is gutting that after all that you will react with this language to younger feminists.”

The root of the divide, she said, was that “the digital labour that is done by younger feminists is not recognised as work by older feminists”. It was dismissed as frivolous. Yet “there’s more than enough space” for younger and more mature feminists in India.

There were many sessions, big and small. Women spoke of the book that made them a feminist, and how difficult it can be to reread books loved as a child. Singer-songwriter Neko Case remembered rereading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, first published in 1934, which includes the line that “there were no people” on the prairie, “only Indians lived there”. “You’re dead to me,” said Case.

At a small, free session on the festival’s last day, Sista Zai Zanda, the curator of The Pan Afrikan Poets Cafe, held a workshop about the search for writing by black women that would speak to her life and experience.

“We need healing from underrepresentation and misrepresentation,” she said, “new stories, new frames of references … what it means to be African and a woman.” She played music and read her own poetry and encouraged audience members to name a book by a woman of colour which had mattered to them.

This festival said farewell to Women of Letters, a project festival director Marieke Hardy co-founded with Michaela McGuire in 2010. It was a simple concept: women would write a letter with a common theme and read it to the audience. Sessions were never recorded and, often through word of mouth, it grew to be hugely successful.

The final Women of Letters was about a letter of goodbye as the journalist Annabel Crabb said farewell to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. She had never known someone as “simultaneously bulletproof and acutely vulnerably as you”. Commentator Clementine Ford spoke of the death of her mother from cancer, “letting go of my protector, my guide, my sometimes nemesis”.

South African writer Sisonke Msimang said goodbye to Canada when her family moved back to Kenya when she was 14. Saying farewell to McDonald’s, Madonna, and “being in the best dancer in a 10km radius”.

It was perhaps not the best Women of Letters session ever held, but it maintained its open-hearted sensibility. It was not overtly feminist, but it was so female. A safe space in the best sense of the term. A place where writers could be as vulnerable as they liked and nobody would scorn. A place where the huge diversity of women was celebrated. In its way, deeply feminist.