Elinor Ostrom was born Elinor Claire Awan in Los Angeles, California, the only child of Leah (born Hopkins) and Adrian Awan. Her father was Jewish, while her mother was Protestant. She attended a Protestant church and often spent weekends staying with her aunt, one of her father's sisters, who kept a kosher home. Her parents were poor, especially when her father left her mother.
She married political scientist Vincent Ostrom in 1963.