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Ellen Starr was born in Illinois in 1859. Her father encouraged her in thinking about democracy and social responsibility, and his sister, Ellen's aunt Eliza Starr, encouraged her to pursue higher education. There were few women's colleges, especially in the Midwest; in 1877, Ellen Starr began her studies at Rockford Female Seminary with a curriculum equivalent to that of many men's colleges.
In her first year of study at Rockford Female Seminary, Ellen Starr met and became close friends with Jane Addams. Ellen Starr left after a year, when her family could no longer afford to pay tuition. She became a teacher in Mount Morris, Illinois, in 1878, and the following year at a girls' school in Chicago. She also read such authors as Charles Dickens and John Ruskin and began shaping her own ideas about labor and other social reforms, and, following her aunt's lead, about art as well.
Her friend, Jane Addams, meanwhile, graduated from Rockford Seminary in 1881, tried to attend a Woman's Medical College, but left in ill health. She toured Europe and lived for a while in Baltimore, all the while feeling restless and bored and wanting to apply her education. She decided to return to Europe for another trip and invited her friend Ellen Starr to go with her.
On that trip, Addams and Starr visited Toynbee Settlement Hall and London's East End. Jane had the vision of starting a similar settlement house in America and talked Starr into joining her. They decided on Chicago, where Starr had been teaching and found an old mansion that had become used for storage, originally owned by the Hull family - thus, Hull House. They took up residence on September 18, 1889, and began “settling” in with the neighbors, to experiment with how to best serve the people there, mostly poor and working-class families.
Ellen Starr led reading groups and lectures, on the principle that education would help uplift the poor and those who worked at low wages. She taught labor reform ideas, but also literature and art. She organized art exhibits. In 1894, she founded the Chicago Public School Art Society to get art into public school classrooms. She traveled to London to learn bookbinding, becoming an advocate for the handicrafts as a source of pride and meaning. She tried to open a book bindery at Hull House, but it was one of the failed experiments.
She also became more involved in labor issues in the area, involving immigrants, child labor and safety in the factories and sweatshops in the neighborhood. In 1896, Starr joined the garment workers' strike in support of the workers. She was a founding member of the Chicago chapter of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1904. In that organization, she, like many other educated women, worked in solidarity with the often-uneducated women factory workers, supporting their strikes, helping them file complaints, raising funds for food and milk, writing articles and otherwise publicizing their conditions to the wider world.
In 1914, in a strike against Henrici Restaurant, Starr was among those arrested for disorderly conduct. She was charged with interfering with a police officer, who claimed she had used violence against him and “tried to frighten him” by telling him to “leave them girls be!” She, a frail woman of at best a hundred pounds, did not look to those in court like someone who could frighten a policeman from his duties, and she was acquitted.
After 1916, Starr was less active in such confrontational situations. While Jane Addams generally did not get involved in partisan politics, Starr joined the Socialist Party in 1911 and was a candidate in the 19th ward for the alderman's seat on the Socialist ticket. As a woman and a Socialist, she did not expect to win but used her campaign to draw connections between her Christianity and Socialism and to advocate for more fair working conditions and treatment of all. She was active with the Socialists until 1928.
Addams and Starr disagreed about religion, as Starr moved from her Unitarian roots in a spiritual journey that took her to conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1920.
She withdrew from public view as her health grew poorer. A spinal abscess led to surgery in 1929, and she was paralyzed after the operation. Hull House was not equipped or staffed for the level of care that she needed, so she moved to the Convent of the Holy Child in Suffern, New York. She was able to read and paint and maintain a correspondence, remaining at the convent until her death in 1940.
Ellen Gates Starr Facts
- Known for: co-founder of Chicago's Hull House, with Jane Addams
- Occupation: settlement house worker, teacher, reformer
- Dates: March 19, 1859 - 1940
- Also known as: Ellen Starr
- Religion: Unitarian, then Roman Catholic
- Organizations: Hull House, Women's Trade Union League
- Education: Rockford Female Seminary
- Mother: Susan Gates Childs
- Father: Caleb Allen Starr, farmer, businessman, active in the Grange
- Aunt: Eliza Allen Starr, art scholar