She was the most famous woman in the world. Yet everywhere, ordinary women of her generation see so many aspects of their own lives - their hopes, fears and struggles - reflected in hers. Aminatta Forna shares their thoughts
Diana, Princess of Wales was many things to many people. A week on from her death, that much is clear, whatever else is not. She was the Children's Princess according to an item on the BBC, she was the Gay Princess wrote Ned Sherrin in the Evening Standard, she was Princess to the poor, the sick and the homeless and countless others.

As the myths and the memories begin to merge and to crystallise, Diana's personality is already receding and her image beginning the transformation into an icon. Soon, she will become the stuff of quasi-academic debate and American universities will begin to offer courses on her. And, doubtless, one of the many ways in which she will be analysed and deconstructed will be as a woman. For, above anything else and to an extraordinary extent, she encapsulated the conflicts, challenges and contradictions of the female condition in the late 20th century.

Linda Grant, columnist and novelist, tells a story of her thoughts the day of Diana's Panorama interview. "What struck me," she says, "was the way she touched a series of bases in the lives of everyday women. She clocked them up one by one: she came from a broken home, she married too young, she suffered post-natal depression, she had eating disorders, she fell in love with a bastard who betrayed her. She was talking about the stuff covered in the women's magazines in anonymous interviews, and she was the most famous woman in the world. And which one of us hasn't shared at least one of those experiences." Diana had done it all.

There is a whole generation of women, now in our thirties, who grew up with Diana and whose lives paralleled hers in some way or another. Because of that, if for no other reason, she has come to have an extraordinary grasp on our psyches. Even some of the coolest professional women I spoke to became truly emotional on the subject of her demise. In some ways her influence was direct, specific and quantifiable. Her admission of eating disorders, for example, had the effect of bringing attention and empathy to sufferers who are mostly female. Beverley Cade, a 29-year-old insurance clerk, was struck by similar troubles in the late Eighties: "I could associate with why she was like that. It's easy to attack yourself and not realise why." The Eating Disorders Association credit Diana with "ending the isolation of a lot of women" with anorexia and bulimia, according to spokesperson Margaret Duncan.

Women relate their lives to Diana's in a variety of ways, which are obvious or tangential, both large and small, extraordinary and ordinary. The sixth- former who, just a year younger, was waiting for her A-level results when Diana walked up the aisle. Someone else was born the exact same year and month. Yet another, like Diana, married too young and subsequently divorced. There was one who had ditched an unfaithful husband. "If she could do it in her position, then I could do it," she told me. The multi- faceted nature of the Princess' image defies belief. Every aspect of her life served as a touchstone in someone else's.

Black women, too, see themselves in Diana. "She was an outsider," says Lucy Pilkington, a filmmaker who has just finished a documentary about the experiences of black men for Channel 4. "That's why black people like her so much. We know what it's like to try to be as good as you can but never be accepted. Plus, she dated Dodi Al Fayed, an Egyptian. Black people liked that. You could say Diana was a black woman in many ways..."

But away from the specific, it is Diana as an emblem of Nineties' femininity that captivates. If the events of her life were like the stories that appeared in women's magazines, her entire person embraced and encapsulated the central ethos of the glossy magazines, the idea of "having it all". Diana was a woman who wanted it all, and for a time at least she appeared to have it all - the rich husband, the family, the public life, the body and the clothes, oh, the clothes. Editor of Elle, Marie O Riordan: "I think she was a significant woman that a lot of women in their thirties identified with. She had it all and they want it all. But she illustrated vividly, through her bulimia and her broken marriage, the downside of how that can go wrong The big question we are left with after her death is whether that dream is unachievable. That's the dichotomy of modern womanhood."

For some women, Diana's struggle for self-expression represented the voice of a generation and a new set of standards and concerns. Amy Jenkins, creator of the TV series This Life, whose characters and storylines chart contemporary values and mores, views Diana as a thoroughly modern woman. "She was significant because she demonstrated how as a society we are increasingly looking inwards, at how as individuals we function, rather than out at the whole society." In the US, where this philosophy is all, Diane Tucker, a New Yorker comments that Diana's relationship with the Queen represented challenge of one generation of women to another. "The Queen put duty above all else. Diana exemplified the triumph of the individual over the establishment if you like. It was a whole new paradigm." And maybe, at some level, Diana's demise represents the fate that can await the mouse who roared.

But plenty of women think that Diana's problem was that she asked for too much, as well as much that was contradictory. She wanted to be an independent woman as well as a traditional wife and mother. She married wealth and privilege and thought she would be treated as an equal. She transformed herself into an alluring beauty and then demanded to be left alone. No wonder she got herself into such an almighty muddle, which she tried to straighten with therapy, fortune tellers and a succession of inappropriate and ill-advised liaisons. Diana suffered from an ailment peculiar to the modern, Western world where a new generation regard the pursuit of personal happiness as a birthright and are unprepared for the consequences of devoting oneself to the pleasure principle. What she portrayed had less in common with legitimate individualism and more in common with self-obsession.

"There's a belief, which is simply unrealistic, that everything in life ought to be perfect," says Helen, a 33 year-old doctor living and working in the Midlands. "I see it in my patients all the time. People think the world owes it to them without any cost." Kaday Mansour, a 34-year-old Londoner agrees. Diana was part of a collective unreality which dictates "that you can and should have a wonderful relationship, body, children and career. And that if you aren't having those things, you are failing as a woman."

Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, the magazine whose cover Diana adorned, told me unequivocally: "Diana was a role model for a whole generation". But not many women actually want to emulate her or would wish their daughters to. "What would she have amounted to without the marriage?" somebody asked. If we knew that we'd be able to put her into perspective. Rather than admiration, Diana more often evokes sympathy, pity. She is a martyr rather than a role model; like Sylvia Plath, she represents more what is done to women th an what they do. The cartoonist Sally Anne Lasson, a major Di fan, who by her own confession followed every aspect of the Princess's life and has visited Kensington Palace twice in the past week, expressed it with the words: "All those terrible men and the way they treated her, her struggle to try to bust out of that entirely male structure." Although at her wedding there were feminists holding banners with the words: "Don't do it Di!", subsequent events have seen Diana recast by some as a feminist icon. She sometimes seemed to see herself in that way, too. But could Diana have ever beencall ed a feminist? "Along with the whole nation, I have re-invented her in my mind now she's gone," confesses the writer Joanna Briscoe. "But she isn't a true feminist icon like Hillary Clinton. She's a post-feminist icon. She was both a crusader and a manip ulator, who exploited female roles to her own ends." Although in the past seven days, Diana has been compared innumerable times to Marilyn Monroe, she is in many ways more like Madonna. Indeed, Camille Paglia has been inspired to write about them both. Diana shared Madonna's ability to re-invent herself as a thousand female fantasy figures: the Virgin Bride, the Perfect Wife, the Angel of Mercy, the Good Mother. And to the old female roles she added some with a contemporary twist: the Betrayed Wife, the Single Mother. But sometimes even she went too far. Sheila Lyn, who works as a secretary and who admired much of Diana's charitable work, admits to becoming exasperated when the Princess cast herself as a lone parent: "I know lots of single mothers and that irritated m e. They have the indignity of poverty added to the indignity of a broken marriage. For Diana to claim she was the same was ridiculous." Nevertheless, could it be that Diana's massive, across-the-board appeal lay in the fact that ultimately she was awoma n and her life conformed to the tragedy and pain that throughout history, myths, legends and stories have taught us it is a woman's lot to bear. While his former wife is being deified, Charles is being demonised and yet their lives are not so very different. He was, by all accounts, a neglected child. He sought a fulfilling relationship but was bound, by the pressures of conformity, to marrya wo man he loved with half a heart who was felt to be more suitable than his chosen lover. He has strived to find himself some kind of meaning to his professional life, and he has even dabbled with spiritualism and chatted to trees. If Charles was a woman in stead of a man, a beautiful princess no less, I bet we'd be eaten up with sympathy for him, too. But in this game, as a man, it's his job to play the oppressor. And as a woman, Diana's role is the eternal victim. It has been said that women didn't seem jealous of Diana's looks. Stephanie Schilling, a PR director and an American living in London, thinks Diana's looks are a significant part of her complex appeal. "Her looks had a lot to do with it. It was why you f elt even more sympathy. Even with those looks, she had all the insecurities other women have." In the words of last week's "Bridget Jones Diary": "It made you feel that if someone so beautiful and gorgeous could be treated like shit by stupid men and feel unloved and lonely, then it wasn't because you were rubbish that it happened to you." The dif ference between Diana and Madonna is that the latter really does appear to have it all and not to be treated badly by anybody. And we like Diana a lot more than Madonna, don't we? Still, the post-divorce Diana was the most refreshing of all the Dianas, a view shared by a number of the women. They appreciated the uncompromising winner-takes-all attitude. "She got what she wanted, the settlement the kids," said someone. The auctioni ng of the dresses was a hit, so was the new hairstyle, the sexy lover, the 'every woman deserves an adventure' thing of it all, the phoenix rising from the ashes of her past. But, already, there's a temptation to glorify this last act of Diana's life. We are desperate to give the story of her life something approximating a happy ending, to believe that she had found the true love which had eluded her. Let's not create the myth all over again, please. The match with Dodi did not lookprom ising in many different ways, which have to do with his reputation and both their pasts. We want to believe she would have, or will in some other dimension, live happily ever after. Let's stop playing out our fantasies on Diana. If women have learned anything from her experience, it's that life just ain't like that.