Caroline Schoonover Manages Historic Farm, Leads as Activist

by Ash Bruxvoort

You have a pretty interesting job managing a historic farm at Living History Farms. How did you end up in that role?

I started volunteering at Living History Farms with my mom and sister when I was 10-12. My best friend volunteered there and it seemed like the coolest thing ever. I was already really into history, the Oregon trail, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read a lot and wanted to do the things I read about and it was fun to do it. When I was in graduate school I applied for a job there because I wanted to be in a museum and not academia. There was a job in the gift shop and I worked there for two years. I was honest with my boss and told them I wanted to do interpretation, which I eventually started doing.

Now I manage a farm that’s set near 1850 in period clothing. The management of that farm entails taking care of livestock, managing annual butchering and livestock sales a couple times a year, and then I also maintain the garden and the household because I am the domestic supervisor.

What is the experience of being a modern woman working as a domestic supervisor like?

It’s something that I never thought about as being a weird thing until very recently. It’s interesting to see how visitors react to the work that I do in the house and outside of the house. The work that’s done inside the house is pretty regularly belittled. The work that’s done outside of the house I’m questioned if I’m the appropriate person to do the work. I was out hauling corn while my male coworker was in the barn and a guest gave him a hard time for not helping me. He said, “Trust me, she’s a very capable woman.”

I usually say farm work is something that everyone needs to know how to do. If something happens to somebody there isn’t really a manual you can just look at and understand. In 1850 especially, if something were to happen to your husband there is no way a woman could survive if she wasn’t knowledgeable and out there helping.

What made you decide to come to the learning circle and how did you learn about it?

I was looking at the PFI website researching their Labor4Learning program and when I saw the learning circle. I liked that it would be very introductory and the fact that it was for women was appealing. Farming is intimidating especially if you’re trying to learn from someone who isn’t understanding of your knowledge or the way they talk to you.

What was your main takeaway from the day? What did you like most?

Importance of having a community that could help them. None of the women would have been successful without that.

Do you have a long term farm dream?

I really enjoy textiles and fiber sheep. I’ve been spinning like crazy at work because we’re going to dye yarn soon. Sheep are very annoying animals but I’m not scared of them.

Outside of work you’re very active in Democratic Socialists of America. Have you always been interested in activism?

Before DSA I wasn’t involved in activism. I didn’t want to get involved because I felt like there were other people who had more deeply held beliefs than me or people who were better at doing that kind of thing than me so I just assumed that other, better people would fill those roles. I wasn’t very aware of what my options were for activism, which makes sense because in my experience most local activists are older.

But then I felt like I was wasting the energy and knowledge and things that I had about these issues that were bothering me if I just waited for someone else do something. So I joined DSA after the election. We’re still in the beginning stages of developing the chapter. This seems like the first kind of step in the larger timeline of accomplishments for the left. Building a base of support is something we’re doing right now. We’re also speaking out on issues and fighting capitalism.

Through DSA you were able to attend an activist training for women and binary non-conforming folks. What was that experience like?

I was in New York for a national leadership training at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. It was a training that was coordinated, facilitated by women and binary non-conforming folks. It wasn’t an environment I had really been in before and it was very obvious to me that it was a different experience in terms of learning and decision making. We were all working together with each other. The main differences were that it didn’t feel like anyone was competing to have a better idea or shut anybody down. We all had some kind of understanding about not being competitive in that way. I felt like everybody was respectful and we didn’t have to be reminded to be respectful.

It was good to hear experiences coming from DSA, which is such a male dominated space, that it’s a problem everywhere. Women chapter leaders tend to be scrutinized more heavily so sharing those experiences was really helpful.

Why do you think it’s important that more women get involved in activism and run for office?

Women are really good decision makers and should be put in those positions more frequently. There’s a level of awareness for other people’s feeling that comes more naturally. Being empathetic in general to other people’s situations. Wanting to form connections with others whereas men tend to be more distant.

What is one resource you would recommend to all women working sustainable ag?

My Antonia. That book really stuck with me and made me think a lot about what I do at work and a woman’s role in the farm and community building and sustaining.

Everyone should study more agricultural history because it’ll inform your work in agriculture now so much more.