A Champion for Women

Martha Jane Phillips Starr to join Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

Martha Jane Phillips was born in 1906 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Her father, L.E. Phillips, was a co-founder of Phillips Petroleum, and the Phillips family enjoyed an abundant lifestyle. But Mr. Phillips never let his children forget that they had a moral obligation to give to others from the bounty with which they had been blessed.

Mr. Phillips, your daughter, Martha Jane, was listening. She became a legendary activist and philanthropist who blazed a trail for family and women’s issues, women’s studies and women’s rights that remains a well-traveled highway.

In recognition of her lifetime achievements and contributions, Martha Jane Phillips Starr is one of seven exceptional women from the Metropolitan Kansas City area included in the inaugural class of honorees to be recognized in the new Starr Women’s Hall of Fame. Stories of other inductees can be found online.

Martha Jane attended the Erskine School for Girls in Boston, a liberal arts and finishing school. In 1929, she married John Wilbur Starr, a classmate of her brother’s from the University of Kansas. They settled in Kansas City and busied themselves with raising their sons.

As the boys matured, Starr began to consider her life and that of her female friends – particularly their place in society. Based on her own understanding and the stories she heard, Starr knew that silence and inexperience weakened a family. Would life be richer if every member of the family had some preparation, and could weigh in on decisions about business, education, child-bearing, child-rearing and the like?

Starr believed that, as with any subject, family life could only be improved by more careful study. Education should include preparation for marriage, family living, respect for all family members and how to parent effectively as a team.

Piece by piece, everything began to fit together.

Starr’s concern for families – and some of the strains they lived with – took her off the safe path into areas that were considered controversial and politely ignored: birth control, family planning and family health, women’s education, marriage, divorce, unwanted pregnancy, unwed parents and family economics. She established academic programs and centers for family research, such as the endowed Chair in Human Reproduction at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, and contributed to existing services like Planned Parenthood.

A lifetime of service to others was beckoning, and Starr could not ignore it.

“I didn’t do these things because they were controversial,” she once said. “I did them because they were right.”

UMKC swiftly became a favorite locale where her ideas could take root. She agreed to serve as a UMKC Trustee, in part because it afforded her better access to collaborating with the schools and departments. Other members of her Junior League group found themselves drawn to her projects.

A pilot project on marriage enrichment evolved into UMKC’s Family Studies Center. Starr also led efforts to start the UMKC Women’s Council and supported the department of Women and Gender Studies. Churches and local family service agencies like the Red Cross spread the information coming out of the research and teaching funded by Starr.

The range of Starr’s interests and influence was wide and deep. She served on the committee on Women’s Rights at the United Nations; her concern for butterfly conservancy led her to endow a series of Butterfly Festivals at Powell Gardens; and her collection of miniatures now graces the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.

In appreciation for the many gifts Starr bestowed upon UMKC, the Starr Education Committee established a symposium in her name. Since 1992, the Starr Symposium has worked to eliminate barriers to women, bringing in noted experts in women’s issues to work with local community leaders.

Martha Jane Phillips Starr had the moral center and the means to make a difference in women’s lives; but perhaps none has proven more significant that the Graduate Assistance Fund. Female graduate students apply to the GAF for a stipend to complete their research projects and conference presentations. With assets exceeding a million dollars, this fund has given more than 1,800 women the keys to their futures.

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