Ellen Gates Starr was born in 1859 near Laona, Illinois. With the encouragement of her aunt, Starr attended the Rockford Female Seminary, where she met Jane Addams. In 1888, she traveled with Addams to Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. Inspired by this experience, in 1889, she and Addams co-founded Hull House, in Chicago.
Starr lived and worked at Hull House for nearly 30 years. During her time there, she promoted art appreciation among the residents of Chicago by establishing reading clubs, teaching art history classes, and decorating Hull House with works of art. In 1894 she founded the Chicago Public School Art Society. In addition, Starr opened a bookbindery in Hull House, but later concluded that bookbinding skills were of little use to the clients of Hull House.
While at Hull House, she also worked to end child labor and aided striking women workers. She helped found the Illinois branch of the National Women’s Trade Union League and was arrested in 1914 during a workers’ strike.
Starr converted to Roman Catholicism in 1920, and devoted herself to writing and speaking about Catholicism and Catholic art. In 1929, she became paralyzed from the waist down after an operation to remove a spinal abscess. In 1930, she retired to a Roman Catholic convent, and remained there until her death in 1940.