Elisa Cooper: A gifted intellectual and a Berkeley activist

Elisa Cooper (in blue) with the Friends of Adeline in early May after a council vote on 2902 Adeline — a project the group fought to shape in response to neighborhood concerns. Photo: Emilie Raguso

By Carolyn Merchant

Elisa Cooper (1969-2017), formerly a graduate student in the Department of History passed away of natural causes in June 2017.

Elisa overcame tremendous obstacles in pursuit of her education. She came from a severely disadvantaged background., having grown up in a small factory town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Most of her relatives were small farmers and factory workers. The combined income of her parents (her father, deceased, was a part-time music teacher, and her mother a motel night-clerk and later a church secretary) was very low. She attended grade schools geared toward rural needs, where she benefitted more from the free lunch program than the vocational curriculum. Despite the setbacks of her early life, she became a local chess champion and took the initiative to apply for a scholarship to a private school for a year of college preparation. Out of her class at her hometown school, she was one of only three people to go on to a four-year college, and she was the only one who went to an out-of-state school—Sarah Lawrence in New York City. She worked her way through college, maintained a high level of academic performance, and won a scholarship to spend her junior year at Oxford University.

Elisa entered the University of California, Berkeley in 1997 as a graduate student in the History Department, without outside fellowship support and worked long hours supporting herself not only through reader, research, and teaching assistantships, but by performing eldercare and doing housework.

Elisa’s academic research focused on seventeenth century women as an educationally disadvantaged social-group affected by and dependent on the power of men in the society. She passed her oral examination in History and was admitted to the Women and Gender Studies graduate emphasis in the Women’s Studies Department. Her goal was to teach in a women’s college, especially one that reaches out to poor and racially under-represented women in society. She dropped out of the university in the early 2000s before completing her dissertation. She was active in Berkeley politics until her death.

Although as a one-eighth native American, Elisa did not consider herself to be culturally native American.

Elisa was extremely sharp, very widely read, and very well informed about broad issues pertinent to the history of western civilization.  She was analytically precise and spoke to exact points with knowledge to back up what she was saying.  As a reader in my environmental history course, ESPM 160AC ,“American Environmental and Cultural History,” she spent countless hours giving students feedback on both their writing and ideas on papers written in response to environmental history films and videos shown every week in the course. In all my years of teaching, I have not seen such attention to students’ work with such helpful suggestions for improvement as I saw in Elisa’s comments on their papers. Elisa cared deeply about students and went out of her way to meet with them outside of class and even beyond her own office hours in order to encourage them to work on their writing and analytical skills.

For her dissertation Elisa investigated the internal dynamics of women’s groups in seventeenth-century England.  She was especially interested in how relational practices among women invented and reinforced the values that underpinned their public political behavior.  Her research made an important contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on the early role of women in the development of bourgeois practices, the creation of the Enlightenment public sphere, and the emergence of modern civil society.  Her work shed light on the preconditions of both the oppressive and emancipatory legacies of seventeenth-century proto-feminism for contemporary organized women’s movements.

Elisa was not only very smart and hard-working, but she cared passionately about the political and social advancement of women. She was a goldmine of information about women’s history.  She specialized in early modern European women, and read widely in global women’s studies and feminist theory.  She offered expertise and imaginative interpretation to discussions about the roles and adventures of women in the long perspective of time.

Elisa Cooper did extensive research on the science and philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, a natural philosopher of the 17th century.  She was able to demonstrate that Cavendish’s form of language and poetic prose were grounded in a Renaissance tradition of poetry that linked the thought forms of the classical era with the ways the “new science” reflected the natural world.  She showed that Cavendish’s metaphysics was not the mere scribbling and fancy of an uneducated noblewoman, but tied to a respected form of expression in the period.  She then argued that as Cavendish came increasingly under the influence of the plain language school of natural science, her own language changed to reflect that of Royal Society (England’s first scientific society founded in 1660).  Elisa’s approach was a very promising way to understand the “feminist science” of the period and to look at the origins of modern science.  Her research was impressive in its scope, in terms of the primary sources of the period and in the recent work done on Cavendish, and the level of detail she revealed, in terms of the characteristics of Renaissance poetry.  Her writing was clear and concise and her arguments extremely well crafted.

Elisa Cooper will be greatly missed as a gifted intellectual and a Berkeley activist.

Carolyn Merchant is a Professor of Environmental History, Philosophy, and Ethics at University of California, Berkeley. Merchant was Cooper’s advisor during her studies at UC Berkeley.