The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 29, 2015 by

What Motivates an Activist?

As a five-year-old girl, activist/journalist/playwright/lawyer Cynthia L. Cooper was unfamiliar with the word feminist and, like most of her peers, knew nothing about human rights or social justice. But she knew what was fair, which is why she took umbrage over privileges that were extended to her brothers, but not to her.

“I remember it as a moment of outrage when my brothers got to play baseball and I didn’t,” Cooper told Lilith. “I was also as good as or better than the boy down the street. It made no sense to me that he was able to join Little League and I wasn’t.”

It’s been many decades since this affront, but Cooper’s affinity for the excluded remains ironclad, and whether she is writing articles about the current spate of sexual attacks on college campuses, books—on themes as disparate as wrongful criminal convictions, the abuses of the Bush/Cheney administration, or tenants’ rights—or plays about sexual violence, reproductive justice, the Holocaust, or women in sports, her passion for equity is evident.

Cooper grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and learned her family’s history through stories that were told by the adults. There was her dad’s chronicle of moving from Lithuania to Reading, Pennsylvania, and her mom’s coming-of-age in tiny Dawson, Minnesota, where hers was the only Jewish family for many miles.  “My grandfather, my mom’s dad, owned a general store,” Cooper begins. “Their family was isolated in terms of Judaism but they were nonetheless central to the community. I heard many accounts of how, during the Depression, my grandfather gave people food if they needed it.” His generosity, she continues, was near-legendary, in one instance prodding him to buy a farm that was being foreclosed in order to protect the destitute people living on this land from being evicted. “I absorbed the message that you should do things for other people,” Cooper says. “That was Judaism for me; you do something bigger than yourself.”

It’s an injunction Cooper has lived by. During the course of her career she has written seven books, 20 one-act and 15 full-length plays; taught at Columbia University; been the sole white journalist on the [Cleveland] Call & Post, a newspaper geared to the African-American community; worked as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Minneapolis-St. Paul; led the investigative reporting unit of an ABC-TV affiliate in the Midwest; served as communications director of the New York City-based Center for Reproductive Rights; and written speeches for former Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, to name just a handful.

No matter the job, a commitment to social justice has always been front and center. “I was the youngest of four and my siblings pushed me around, so maybe that’s why I’ve always been concerned with the oppressed,” Cooper laughs. Nonetheless, she concedes that siding with the mistreated and maligned has sometimes had negative consequences. “I remember once when I was in junior high school I’d been talking to a boy who was sitting in front of me and the teacher sent him, but not me, to the office. I stood up and said, ‘It’s not fair for him to be the only one to get punished. I’m not going to let him take the blame. I’m going to the office, too.’ The principal then suspended both of us.” Cooper grins as she tells this story, and it is clear that she loves the chutzpah of her younger self.

And although more suspensions followed this one, by the time Cooper entered high school she’d found a way to channel her energy and express her opinions: Writing for the school newspaper. One story she wrote centered on the conviction of Dr. Sam Sheppard for the 1954 murder of his wife, Marilyn Reese Sheppard, in Bay Village, Ohio, a town near Cleveland. “I’ve always understood that if you wrongly convict someone of murder, you are letting the real killer go free,” she continues.

Marilyn Sheppard’s death was a mystery that unsettled Cooper—it occurred in a suburb that was similar to her home town—and Cooper became transfixed by the gruesome incident. Her interest led her to spend more than five years investigating and writing about the case. The result was Mockery of Justice: The True Story of the Sheppard Murder Case (Penguin Books, 1995).

To this day, the fact that the person responsible for Marilyn Sheppard’s death was never apprehended—husband Sam was eventually exonerated after spending a decade behind bars—boggles Cooper’s mind, and for a few seconds during our interview she sounds dejected and angry.  She then rallies, and we go back to discussing her many other books and plays.

Three of her best known theater pieces—”Words of Choice,” a nuanced look at abortion and reproductive health issues; “How She Played the Game,” about six female athletes who defied social conventions to pursue competitive sports; and “Silence Not, A Love Story,” about a romance between a Jewish woman and a Catholic man that unfolds during the rise of Nazism in Germany – have been performed throughout the U.S. and abroad.

“Gretel Bergmann is featured in ‘How She Played the Game’,” Cooper says. “She was living in Germany when Hitler came to power and was sent to England where she won medals in her sport, the high jump. The Berlin Olympics were scheduled to begin in 1936 and the US and other countries had decided not to participate. In response, Germany decided to recruit Jewish athletes and Bergmann’s father exhorted her to return home and participate in the trials. She was the only fully-Jewish athlete to get through them and be selected. As a result of this, the US decided it would compete. Then, shortly after America announced its change of heart, Bergmann got a letter saying she’d been eliminated from the team, that her achievements had not been adequate. She left Germany in 1937 and ended up in Queens.”    

Cooper concedes that she could have written Bergmann’s story as a journalist. “Plays give you an opportunity to talk in a way that you can’t in fact-based reporting,” she explains. ”In theater, you can reach people on a more emotional level. They get to see real people, the wrinkles in people’s lives, and the fact that nothing is ever black or white. So much of the world tries to push things into a black or white dichotomy, but we need to see the complexity of every decision we make, whether it’s about reproductive choice or going to war.” 

But Cooper is not yet ready to abandon her reporter’s notebook. She is now writing a series of articles about sexual assault on college campuses for Perspectives, a magazine published by the American Bar Association. “I’m a feminist, so of course I think sexual violence and abuse have to be addressed,” she explains. “But I’m not in favor of prosecuting someone without evidence. Some of the worst mis-prosecutions that have occurred in this country surround accusations of sexual violation. We should not rush to convict willy-nilly. I lean toward Restorative Justice [RJ], an approach that addresses the needs of victims alongside the needs of the accused and the communities they live in. Restorative Justice is different from punitive punishment and works to find ways to reduce the harm for all involved stakeholders.”

It’s admittedly a lofty approach to criminal justice but Cooper is resolute in her belief that people need to listen to one another. In addition, she believes that we cause great harm when we erase people’s stories or deny their experiences.  “Women as subjects are often invisible in our culture,” she concludes. “In the theater, for example, I see this as a way of preventing audiences from understanding what’s going on in our lives. The erasure of women explains why so many people don’t understand the reasons reproductive rights and choices are important, or how women have been impacted by the Holocaust, or why excluding someone on the basis of gender is harmful. The lack of visibility is frustrating, maybe even criminal. That’s why we need to tell our stories.”