Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Helen Ekin Starrett, 1840-1920
By Kate Rosenbaum, student, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA
Helen Martha Ekin was born September 19, 1840 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Helen was the eldest of the six children of Reverend John Ekin, a prominent minister and academic, and Esther Fell Lee. The Ekins focused heavily on the education of their children, with Helen entering Pittsburgh's Central High School at the age of 13, where she collected many awards for her work. Following graduation, Helen immediately began her teaching career at the Edgeworth Ladies' Seminary, the first institution of higher education for girls in western Pennsylvania. In 1858, she assumed the role of principal of the Scott Female Institute located in Georgetown, Kentucky.
In 1864, at the age of 24, Helen relocated to Kansas after marrying Reverend William Starrett. Alongside her family duties regarding the care of her seven children, she took on the roles of a newspaper editor for multiple national publications and music instructor, and she invented several patented devices designed to improve the comfort of women's shoes. Helen and her family later relocated to Chicago, Illinois where William pursued a career as a lawyer. In Chicago, Helen founded the Western Magazine (1880-1883), which showcased various pieces of foreign literature and was considered to be a “well-circulated” magazine despite the publication closing after only three years. More significantly, Helen founded the Kenwood Institute, which served as a classical school for young girls and later founded the Starrett School for Girls in 1883, both of which were located in the Kenwood community of Chicago. The Starrett School, which housed students from kindergarten through college preparation, was one of the oldest in the city and sent graduates to Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley colleges, the leading women's colleges in the country.
In 1893, she assumed the role of the second elected president of the Illinois Women's Press Association (IWPA), representing the association at the Chicago World Fair. Chicago newspapers reported Starrett to be the host of a large IWPA social gathering at the Palmer House Hotel. It was also reported that over 200 prominent women attended the function. Helen was prominent in the national suffrage movement. She was a close friend of Susan B. Anthony and was one of only two delegates to attend both the first National Woman Suffrage Association convention, hosted in Washington, D.C. in 1869 and the Victory Convention in 1920. Her reputation was such that the New York Sun reported attendees knew where Helen was at the Victory Convention “due to the constant mobs of women of all ages surrounding her.”
In 1916, Starrett relocated to Oregon to live across the street from her younger daughter. Although she proclaimed that she had retired, she was persuaded to take on the role of president of the Ainsworth Parent-Teaching Association. Her activities in Oregon reaffirmed her commitment to the education of young women, and she authored multiple books on the subject, including Letters to a Daughter (1882), The Future of Educated Women (1880), The Charm of Fine Manners (1885), The Future of Our Daughters, and After College; Now What? (1885), all of which can still be read today. Helen Starrett died on December 16, 1920 in Portland, Oregon and was eulogized in both local and national newspapers.
Armour, William S. “Helen Ekin Starrett.” 17 August 2008, https://armourtree.blogspot.com/2008/08/helen-ekin-starrett.html
“Chicago Women.” The Daily Inter Ocean, 1 September 1880, p. 8.
Colbruno, Michael. “Lives of the Dead: Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.” 24 November 2017, http://mountainviewpeople.blogspot.com/2017/11/helen-ekin-starrett-1840-1920-iconic.html
"Helen E. Starrett is Called by Death.” Oregonian, 17 December 1920, p. 11.
Leonard, John W. Woman's Who's who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, Volume 1. New York: The American Commonwealth Co., 1914. [LINK]
Sterling Standard, 5 September 1889, p. 6.
“Suffragist of ‘69 Convention Attends Chicago Gathering.” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 February 1920, p. 5.
Wolf-Astrauskas, Marianne. “A Woman of Insight & Integrity.” Illinois Women's Press Association, 1 June 2015, http://www.iwpa.org/a-woman-of-insight-integrity/