Your gran never had it so good

A chronicle of the hardships women faced and the sacrifices they made carries a positive message for Melissa Benn

What diffident, arrogant teenage girl does not dream of a life better than her mother's - no messy compromises, no routine drudgery - and more of just about everything else: sex, work, money, adventure? It is the stuff of every classic account of female adolescence, from Simone de Beauvoir's angry determination to foil her mother's ultra-religious conformity to Julie Burchill's much-heralded escape from Bristol working- class life.

Now Margaret Forster has written of her own particular conflict between the generations and of a girl leaving her mother behind. But Forster does this in a non-judgemental way. Her latest book, Hidden Lives, is, in one sense, a chronicle of a family forever improving itself, of class ascension. It tells of her grandmother, Margaret Ann, a domestic servant to a benign Carlisle glass merchant at the turn of the century; her mother, Lily, who gave up a much-loved office job to raise a family; and Margaret Forster herself, the classic "scholarship girl made good" who went on from Oxford to (relative) fame and fortune.

Although she deploys a novelist's imagination and a social historian's precision to bring these "ordinary" women alive, Forster is not simply telling stories. Hidden Lives also has a not-so-hidden argument. It was written partly as a rebuttal of those, from feminists to social historians, who claim women's lives have not dramatically improved over the century. Those who say women are the new and growing poor. That male violence may have been unmasked - but it has not been defeated. That greater class mobility benefits a few lucky women. Yes, we have a new language of female freedom, role models who promise us the earth. But this new world of theoretically limitless possibility may make most women feel worse, not better.

Forster would be the last to deny contemporary disappointments. Her argument is rooted rather in an act of remembrance. She wants us to recall just how bad things once were, to look at the punishing life of a woman such as her grandmother Margaret Ann, and compare it with almost any woman, poor or not, today. The latter, she believes, has an incomparable advantage.

She wants us also to remember what did not exist, what we now take for granted. From the prosaic to the poetic, labour-saving devices or growing sexual freedoms, the illicit pleasures of consumerism or the new, rugged "me-too" individualism that encourages women to take something for themselves rather than forever nobly sacrificing themselves to others, many a woman of 1905 would not recognise her descendants of 1995.

This is true of her family certainly, but what of other women? There is not a family in the land without its achievements and setbacks, but do women of perhaps less glamour than Forster's find resonance in her argument of truly significant change? What emerges is a mixed blessing, a complex picture in which greater freedoms and expectation conflict with a sense of loss - of community, of education, of a certainty that once came with traditional values.

Dr Ruth Richardson, 43, historian, writer and broadcaster, recognises the transitions of Hidden Lives only too well. Her grandmother, Beatrice, was also a live-in servant, from the tender age of 11. She came from a mining village in Wales, one of 13, to a family in Notting Hill who wished they were wealthier than they were. She had to wear three different uniforms a day, to suggest they had more servants than they did. "All the food was under lock and key. The mistress of the house used to weigh the food before and after cooking, to make sure we hadn't eaten any. My grandmother used to say that she'd never gone hungry all her life till she came to London and worked for a rich family."

Hard physical work dominated the life of her mother, Hilda, too, right into the Sixties. "There were five of us, all daughters, in our family. My mother was always washing, bleaching, boiling. There were buckets in the bath and a great big boiler on the stove, like a preserving pan, for boiling nappies. I'm sure it's an illusion but I seem to remember it, standing there, boiling, all through my childhood. Clothes were always drying in our kitchen. There was no running hot water. Yet there was also this hangover from my grandmother's generation that everything had to be spotless. You had to keep up standards."

Dr Richardson is also in no doubt that her own life is so much easier. "Easier - not better. Just sitting at this table and looking around me, I can see a washing machine, fridge, dishwasher, running hot water, central heating, spin dryer. There was none of that in my parents' house. A coalman used to bring the coal up the stairs every week."

But with ease and affluence has come loss. Like Margaret Forster, Ruth Richardson benefited from the welfare state as a child - in everything from educational opportunities to free museums to sharing in a sense of civic belonging. In her view, the new individualism - code name Market Forces - has eroded quality of life, especially for poorer families. "On weekends and school holidays, my sisters and I used to walk over the park to the Science Museum or Natural History Museum. It cost us maybe our bus fare back. What family on low pay or benefit could afford that now, with charges for museums? And all these student loans, how is a working- class girl to get the education I did?"

Other women stress the continuing importance of paid work. For Wilma Gordon, 71, a retired speech therapist from Glasgow, it is this that has revolutionised women's lives. "Even in the Fifties, it was simply assumed a woman would give up work when she got a husband. It's easy to forget how many employers would not employ married women. I remember one girl who qualified with me; she was given a post in August but then the following Easter, she got married. There was the most dreadful trouble."

Wilma Gordon herself brought up five children but always worked part time, in a child guidance clinic, loving the outside connection it gave her. She remembers her own mother's "joy during the Second World War when she went back to nursing. Before that she'd been housebound, bringing up myself and my sister. As a nurse, she felt more valuable".

One of the sad stories in Hidden Lives is of Forster's mother, Lily. Part of the first wave of chic, neatly attired young women who swept into white-collar work at the beginning of the century, Lily worked as a clerk in Carlisle's Public Health Department. By 1920, she earned two pounds and four shillings a week, a treasure trove compared to the pounds 18 a year her mother had earned as a servant in the 1890s. Yet despite the joy and prestige her job gave her, she gave it all up for marriage - to the good but stolid Arthur - and motherhood.

As each generation of women struggled to combine or reconcile themselves to abandonment of work and family, the men were changing as well. Huddersfield- born Linda Crabtree, 52, believes the real difference has come with her daughter's generation. There is simply no comparison between the young men she knows now - "who can throw a spaghetti bolognese together, no problem" - and men of her own or her mother's generation.

She remembers how her mother, a strong working woman who "absolutely loved her job as a housekeeper to a big sweet-manufacturing family, would let my stepfather do nothing. She would pass him his drink even if it was three inches from his hand. I don't ever remember him actually switching on the TV. She did it for him. When I was married, if I gave my husband the same size pork chop as me, she went crazy. In her view, the man got the bigger bit of meat, the man should get pampered. In conversation, men know more. Full stop.

"Women just don't put up with that anymore," she says. "My daughter and her husband both work and both do housework together at the weekends. The only job he doesn't like is pegging out the washing."

While no one, Forster least of all, claims that all women's problems are solved in 1995, everyone sees a new kind of self-determination in all women, whatever their class. The journalist Sue Innes, 46, has just written her own account of women in the last 25 years. And she is sure that this is the big difference between us and older generations - "an idea, a feeling of freedom. Even if you're living in a rotten council flat with very little money, you guess you might be better off on your own than with a violent man.

"Even when I was at school, I think I really believed that boys were cleverer. My daughters aged 10 and 15 just know there's these things they can do. There's just this very positive sense of being a girl."

Margaret Forster, Hidden Lives, Viking, pounds 16.

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