The Women Behind the Biggest Rent Strikes in History

Celebrate International Women's Day by making your landlord's life hell.
A protester wearing a 'Cancel Rent' mask
A protester wearing a 'Cancel Rent' mask. Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

It’s easy to feel powerless if you’re renting. The odds are stacked in favour of landlords – when they raise rents, we have to pay up or move out. That’s where rent strikes come in: Tenants get together and withhold rent until the landlord meets their demands. 


Got a landlord who won’t fix the leaky roof or black mould above your bed? Stop paying rent and see if that changes their mind. And it works, too: During lockdown, students organised the largest rent strike in the UK for 40 years and won rent reductions and rebates worth millions

What you might not know is that women were – and still are – deeply involved in the history of rent striking. In fact, as campaigner and housing academic Glyn Robbins puts it: “If you went back and looked at practically every housing justice campaign in the 20th and 21st century almost anywhere in the world, it will be women at the fore.”

Historically the home was – often still is – women’s responsibility, even if they also worked. But instead of lamenting this arrangement, they’ve seen it as an opportunity to reclaim power and dignity. If working men were the cornerstone of the labour movement, it was women that laid the foundation for housing movements.

“The role of women in all aspects of housing struggle is under-recognised,” Robbins explains. “I’d say every successful housing campaign I’ve been a part of has had women at the forefront,” he tells VICE. “The women were doing the donkey work and the men were often grabbing the glory at the end of it.”


During a campaign against the later-shelved Housing and Planning Bill in 2015, “I went to some of the angriest, but most determined housing campaign meetings I've ever attended – and again, it was mostly women in the room,” Robbins recollects. “They didn't need anyone to explain to them why this mattered.”

History is littered with examples of women rent strikers. Pauline Newman fled to America as a child after pogroms forced her family from Lithuania. She settled with other Jewish immigrants in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where housing was poor and most women worked in sweatshops sewing garments. As a teen, she became involved in the Socialist Party. In 1907, when landlords tried to hike rents by 33 percent during an economic depression, Newman led a group of women to camp on the Palisades above the Hudson River and plot their strike.

Pauline Newman (second from left, seated) at a meeting in aid of striking car men, 1916

Pauline Newman (second from left, seated) at a meeting in aid of striking car men, 1916. Photo: Bettmann / Contributor

Dubbed the “East Side Joan of Arc” by the New York Times, this 16-year-old immigrant, lesbian, feminist socialist and trade union organiser built on previous organising efforts in the Jewish community. She enlisted 400 working women to stop paying rent and persuade their friends to join. They pledged to “fight the landlord as they had the Czar” and 10,000 families went on strike. It was the largest that New York City had ever seen and catalysed decades of tenant activism, which eventually led to an early iteration of rent controls still in place today.


Two years later, Newman became first female general organiser of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union after helping organise “the uprising of the 20,000”, in which garment workers walked out of factories across New York in a three month dispute – still the largest women’s labour strike the US has seen.

Across the pond in Glasgow, Mary Barbour and her army of working-class women made history with a rent strike in Glasgow, 1915. With men away fighting World War I and demand for housing rising, landlords thought tenants would accept higher rents. Instead, the Glasgow Women's Housing Association called a rent strike. 

Throughout autumn, Mrs Barbour’s Army, as they became known, galvanised tenants across the city. When evictions were attempted, women defended their homes by throwing projectiles at approaching bailiffs. Barbour was known to make men pull their weight and keep up with the women – on one occasion, she dragged shipbuilders away from work to demand rent repayments from a landlord.

By November 1915, around 20,000 people had stopped paying their landlords. When 18 tenants were brought before a court, the women marched thousands to the courthouse and shipbuilders threatened strikes. Fearing further uprisals, Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act a month later – the first UK legislation capping rents, which was repealed over the next 74 years.

Women haven’t been afraid to couple non-violent direct action with violent direct action during rent strikes. One story from a 1907 Buenos Aires rent strike goes that when a landlord’s employee was beating a young boy, housewives came out to defend him. They knocked him out, took off his pants and kicked him out onto the street as crowds laughed.


Similarly, women organised community defence during a wave of rent strikes that swept London’s East End in the late 1930s. Jewish women in the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League did the bulk of the work to galvanise locals and draw attention to their slumlords. The women organised meetings, pickets and erected barbed wire barricades around the tenements to prevent bailiffs entering. This was a literal war with the landlords – the milkman even needed a permit from the striking tenants to deliver.

On June 27th, police broke through the barricades at Langdale Mansions; a fierce struggle raged with the tenants armed with sticks, shovels and saucepans. The battle was followed by a 15,000-person demonstration, discussion in the House of Commons and finally, after negotiations, a clear win for the women and rent strikers of Stepney. 

“There was nothing that the men could do that could not be equalled by the women, and, in fact, they were mostly more enthusiastic and hence more reliable,” remarked Mile End’s Communist MP Phil Piratin later. At the outbreak of World War Two the following year – fearing more strikes – the government again introduced rent caps.

This feminist tradition has been kept alive and carried on into this century, too. Truus Jansen became a housing campaigner when she organised a rent strike in Newham, London after her landlord tried to increase rents by 40 percent in 2017. Women were at the core of the strike and Truus remembers in particular how many women of colour and refugees were involved. “When they speak up, oh my God, you better listen … you’re like ‘OK, I'm glad you're on my side!’” she recalls. “There were some very strong women who were always there because they understood that turning up is what’s needed.”

Despite her experiences, Truus is sad that women continue to need to advocate for their basic right to housing: “I can say that I'm proud to be part of history, but if you look at how they lived and the traumas they had to go through… it's not a romantic historic note.” There is one thing she is adamant about, though: When faced with struggles, “we never roll over and accept it.”

These days, International Women’s Day’s roots in socialist feminist organising have been largely forgotten. But you can draw a straight line from Pauline Newman to the foundation of IWD – two years after Newman’s rent strike, the Socialist Party of America held the first National Woman’s Day in 1909. European communist Clara Zetkin and her comrades founded International Women’s Day two years after that. 

In a cost of living crisis where rents are skyrocketing, these women would surely be on the frontlines organising in their communities to fight back.The best way to celebrate this International Women’s Day? Organise a rent strike and make your landlord’s life hell.