THE First World War, we often hear, changed the status of women. This story has been told many times over the past century. As the fight for women’s rights has gathered momentum and evolved, we’ve often looked back at the shift that happened for women at that time.

That vast waste of human life that was called the Great War, we tend to say, was good on some level for women and feminism in Britain. It was good, partly because by the end of it, by 1918, some women had been given the vote. But it was also good because over 1.5 million women, who had not previously worked, took up roles in the workforce mostly hitherto occupied by men, and showed themselves more than up to the task.

But is that really true? A century on are we still living off the freedoms created by that war generation? Would the vote have been won without the proof of women’s capability shown by the munitionettes, factory workers, engineers, welders, farm labourers, drivers, postal employees, and doctors of that era? But, also, given what they demonstrated, are we where we might hope or expect to be 100 years further on?

A key area that’s worth thinking about here is equal pay – for some of the earliest calls for equity date back to that era and were the result of the fact that during the war women were directly occupying vacated male roles. When you learn this, you can’t help but marvel at the fact that a whole century on that issue has not been resolved. Here we are in 2018, and only a few weeks ago workers in Glasgow were having to strike to get the city council to value female workers in the way it does its male employees.

That said, there’s no denying things have moved forward. Back in those war years, women were not paid anything like the wage that was awarded to those who had vacated the roles to go to the front, or the male colleagues they worked alongside. Frequently their wages were less than half of the men’s.

Many, of course, didn’t kick up any fuss. There was a war on. Even most of the suffragettes had ceased campaigning for women’s rights and directed their energies at what they believed was a threat to humanity. But there were still some voices, notable among them Scottish suffragist and trades union activist Mary Macarthur, raising the issue of equal pay.

A Workers' National Committee letter from the time, for instance, calls on women to stand for “equal conditions and equal wages”.

The first equal pay strike in the UK took place in 1918, when women workers on London buses and trams stopped their work in order to demand the same increase in pay as men. It spread to the south east and London Underground and the women ultimately won. Yet, all these years on, and if we look back, we can see that the battle for equal pay has not been the short sprint it might have been, but a long marathon whose victories have been hard won.

For, although some women were liberated by the war, mostly, in the aftermath, things went back to business as usual, or at least an attempt at it. The 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced most of them to leave their wartime roles as men came home needing jobs. The women who, through their wartime labour, showed the power of a female workforce mostly returned to their domestic chores or jobs. Many female engineers were fired. Women doctors coming back from field hospitals would find that universities were reluctant to accept them and they mostly lost out to male surgeons in the competition for jobs

Often, post-war, women were caught again in caring roles, for injured male relatives or husbands. We can only surmise, from what we know of post-conflict behaviour, that some of those shell-shocked men also brought violence into their homes, but since such behaviour was mostly kept quiet, and in the family, the records do not reveal it. Female economic muscle and independence seemed to shrink once more.

War, in other words, provided women – at least those on a home front who were not bearing the brunt of the violence – with a moment of freedom, if one steeped in tragedy. The rules were loosened. But quickly after there was a rapid attempt to reconstruct the status quo of before.

It’s notable that the Second World War had a similar effect in Britain. Though the conflict brought two million women into the workplace, come 1951, the number of working women had returned almost to the pre-war level and a bar on married women working continued in many jobs.

That’s not to deny that freedoms had been gained by the end of the First World War. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender. The Representation Of The People Act of 1918 brought votes to around one-third of women, and set in motion the revolution that means that now, in the UK, all women have a vote, and many participate actively in our democracy as MPs, MSPs and leaders. Would that have happened without the war? Yes, probably, given the ferocity of the suffrage movement. But possibly not so quickly.

The war, after all, created a particular set of conditions that made it more inevitable. Women’s inclusion in that Act of 1918 was partly triggered by how much trouble the militant suffragettes had made before the war, but also by the fact that the issue of male suffrage became pertinent. For there were millions of soldiers, who had risked or given their lives for their country, who did not have a vote either. In 1914, 40% of men did not have the right to vote due to residential and property requirements – these were soldiers, sailors, adults living in parents’ houses, the poorest in society.

Given the mood of acknowledgement of the vital wartime roles women had performed and, of course, the pressures from the suffragettes, it became hard to see how a soldier’s vote, male suffrage, could be given without some gift to women. But at that point it was decided the vote should not be given to all women, and not on the same terms as men. For, if that were to happen, what gender would have the biggest vote in a country in which there were now, because of the tragic loss of lives, several more million women than men?

Though universal suffrage was ultimately won in 1928, there is still a long way to go in achieving wider equality. When it comes to equal pay, who gets what jobs, how women are valued in the workplace, and the gender balance in the higher echelons of power, we are still working things through.

It also feels very much as if we are only now as a society becoming aware of the ways in which power is gendered. We live in an era of #MeToo, the Time'sUp movement, the Presidents Club scandal and the BBC pay gap controversy, as well as fervent feminist debate not only over what to do about it, but on how class, race and gender intersect.

Vera Brittain, one of the great writers of the First World War, wrote down some of her observations of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst..“I cannot help but feel,” she observed, “that she and the women who followed her were luckier than we. They were luckier, mainly, for two reasons. They fought, first of all, for a clear-cut issue, which was popular in the sense that it was easily understood. Before 1914, you wanted a vote or you did not, and though you might differ as to methods, your object was the same. Suffragists and anti-suffragists were, on the whole, so much less complicated than feminists and anti-feminists.”

Most would not agree that they were luckier. But one does wonder what Emmeline Pankhurst would make of things? Or Mary Macarthur? Would they be amazed at how far we’ve got, or troubled by the distance still to go?

True, the UK gender pay gap is the narrowest it’s been for 20 years, but it still persists at 8.6%. Meanwhile, we are nowhere near gender parity globally. Last year, the World Economic Forum predicted that, according to current rates, it would take 217 years for the disparities in pay and employment opportunities of men and women to end. The statistics on sexual assault and domestic abuse remain shocking, though hard to compare with the near-absent records of previous generations.

Did the war liberate women? It provided some circumstances that gave it an extra push, but also reinforced some of the structures and traditions that caused the oppression. War, after all, isn’t really good for any demographic. The truth about such conflict is that mostly it produces not progress for women, but violence, suffering, struggle and loss of power.

The Great War didn’t make feminism. It was already almost there.