Helen Ekin Starrett photograph from Paul Starrett’s Changing the Skyline. Original photograph part of Julie Dirkes Phelps’ private collection.

It was while living in Lawrence, Kansas that William and Helen Starrett first met Susan B Anthony. In 1867, Miss Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been travelling through Kansas, speaking on the subjects of temperance and universal suffrage.

A convention of universal suffragists had been called in Lawrence that fall, and local supporters of the movement had been asked to entertain the many out of town visitors who’d need places to stay while in town. Over the years, the Starretts had become friends with former governor Charles Robinson. Gov Robinson had been active in the universal suffrage cause from the beginning, and as one of the convention hosts, asked Helen if she would do him the personal favor of hosting Elizabeth Cady Stanton during her stay. Although the Starrett house was full of babies and William’s sister, Annie, had been living with them, Helen reluctantly agreed. It was a great honor to have been asked to host such an important and influential guest, and although she and William would have to give up their bedroom to accommodate her, she was willing to make the sacrifice for a woman with such a warm and lovely reputation.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, National Portrait Gallery

Helen and William prepared their own bedroom as the guest quarters and readied the house for their long-term guest. The morning she was to arrive, a messenger appeared at the door with a note from Gov Robinson. The note informed Helen that Mrs Stanton had found relatives in town with whom she’d stay, and Miss Susan B Anthony would be her guest instead.

Susan B Anthony National Portrait Gallery

Susan B Anthony had been characterized in the newspapers as an unfriendly and unlikeable woman. She was a tall, lean, angular spinster with a stern demeanor, and one eye that was slightly askew. Nothing like the short little round, rosy cheeked, mother of seven with sparkling blue eyes, puffy white hair, and a sunny disposition that all the papers raved about. Helen could not bear the though of having such an unfriendly presence in her home for such an extended period.

Hastily, Helen threw on her bonnet and shawl, told Annie that she was off to Governor Robinson’s house to inform him that she did not want Miss Anthony as a houseguest and that she would not have her.

When Helen reached the gate, she face face-to-face with a tall woman in a long, plain, black, Quaker-style dress with a white shawl around her shoulders and a simple alligator bag. The woman introduced herself as Miss Susan Anthony, and explained that she had been sent to stay with Mrs Starrett during the convention. Helen apologized and explained to Miss Anthony that she had caught her just as she was on her way to tell Gov Robinson that circumstances had changed and she would be unable to entertain a houseguest. But, since Miss Anthony had come such a long way, Helen invited her to stay to tea, and afterwards, they would see what alternate arrangements could be made.

Vintage suffrage advertisement

As Helen prepared tea for her unwelcome guest, the Starrett babies fell in love with Susan B Anthony. Upon seeing the door to Annie’s room half-open, Miss Anthony peeked inside, and within minutes had made fast friends with Annie. For years, Annie had suffered from severe bouts of depression and anxiety, and had shuttered herself off from the outside world. Rather than exciting her nerves, Susan calmed Annie like no one else had ever done, entertaining her with stories of her travels and adventures. By the time tea had been served, everyone in the Starrett home was practically begging Susan Anthony to stay.

After tea that very first day, Susan rolled up her sleeves, tied on an apron, and took up a spot next to Helen in the home. She lightened the burden of Helen’s household duties. By the end of her six-week stay, Susan B Anthony had become more like a cherished family member than a houseguest, and they parted as beloved friends. Susan was an inspiration to Helen, and although she was twenty years older, this six week stay was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Susan died in 1906.

Susan B Anthony National Portrait Gallery

Subsequent visits to the Starrett home happened over the next few years, and many of Helen’s children had fond memories of Miss Anthony. Sometimes she came alone, and sometimes by other suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Rev. Olympia Brown stayed at the Starrett home with her. Following the failure of the first suffrage referendum, it was from Mrs Starrett’s parlor in Lawrence that Susan B Anthony announced her intention to work towards a Federal enactment for suffrage.

Susan B Anthony, National Portrait Gallery

In 1869, Susan B Anthony organized a national convention for impartial suffrage in Washington DC. She wrote to her dear friend in Lawrence, inviting her to attend as a delegate from Kansas. Having had a baby six months prior and no disposable income, Helen politely and sadly declined. Shortly thereafter, Helen received Susan’s reply in the mail. In her reply, Susan informed Helen that she would provide a nurse for the baby for the duration of the convention so Helen could attend. Additionally, Miss Anthony enclosed a check for $25—and she wrote to Governor Robinson, asking him to raise a subscription among the businessmen of Lawrence to pay the remainder of her expenses. Since every man in high standing in the Lawrence community was in favor of women’s suffrage, there was no trouble raising the necessary funds. A nurse was hired to accompany Helen to Washington DC to care for the baby, and the women had the time of their lives. It was Helen’s first time to attend and speak at a national suffrage convention, but it wouldn’t be her last.

Helen Ekin Starrett, Chicago Tribune

Over the years, Helen continued to travel and speak on behalf of women’s rights. Although some of those in attendance at the 1869 convention would drive a stake into the movement that would cause an 11 year split, dividing women’s rights and equal rights into two separate camps, Helen continued in her work on behalf of women and girls for the rest of her life. She became a business owner, a patent holder, a magazine owner, and a published author. After she was widowed, the single mother opened a school where she inspired thousands of girls for decades to come. And all of her own children grew up to be very successful—some of them famous—adults.

Helen Starrett 2
Helen Ekin Starrett, Chicago Tribune

In February of 1920, Mrs Helen Ekin Starrett attended another women’s suffrage convention in Chicago. Only this convention was different from all the others. This was the Victory Convention. Finally, they had done it. The suffragists had finally won the right to vote for all American women. On June 4, 1919, a Joint Resolution of Congress proposed a constitutional amendment extending the right of suffrage to the women of the United States of America. And it passed. As the only surviving delegate to Miss Anthony’s first convention in 1869, eighty-year old Helen Ekin Starrett was an honored guest of the 1920 Victory Convention. Her prim, velvet bonnet and white silk gloves were the only sign that the smiling and happy elderly lady was of another era. She was a rockstar at the Victory Convention, vividly retelling her stories of the early days of the suffrage movement—of her first encounter with Susan B Anthony and their lifelong friendship; of all the years of conventions, marches, speeches, lectures, writing, lobbying and enrichment of future generations of educated girls and women. The convention, though a dream come true, was bittersweet. None of her friends—the early pioneers of the movement—had lived to celebrate with her. Susan B Anthony never lived to see her life’s work come to fruition.

Suffragettes celebrating the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution

On August 20, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. Four months later, Helen Ekin Starrett passed away. And though she was mourned by the thousands of those who’s lives she touched, she couldn’t have lived a more full—and fulfilling—life.

Early Voter
90 Years after the Victory Convention– Helen Ekin Starrett’s great great great granddaughter, Maggie Phelps. Photo: Williamson County Sun

© Julie Dirkes Phelps

Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller.

© Copyright 2015.

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