Agnes Gioconda

“I probably would not have risen to the level that I did in the business world if it hadn’t been for the skills that I learned through working with Chicago NOW.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, September 2021

KR:  Agnes, thank you so much for agreeing to be part of the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Can you start by telling us your name and when and where you were born?

AG:  My name is Agnes Giocanda, and that’s the name I was born with. And I decided to stick with that. I was born in 1950 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

KR:  Tell me about your growing up life. What kind of family, what kind of ethnic background?

AG:  I’d say it was a very traditional 1950’s upbringing. I have a sister who’s a year and a half older than me to the day. And I had a brother who was four years younger than me, and he passed away in 2019. But I was meant to be the boy because I was the second child, and they already had my sister. I was closer to my father than I was to my mother.

But it was a very Irish and Italian Catholic 1950’s upbringing. My sister was not on the academic track in high school, but I was. And all of my friends were planning to go to college. So I went to my parents and I said, I’d like to go to college. We weren’t poverty stricken, but we were poor. We were not wealthy. And my father said, I have enough money to send one of my children to college, and it will be my son. And that was the day that I became a feminist. And I did go to college. And my parents did supplement a little bit. But mostly I was on the work study program, I got loans, I worked as a waitress and worked my way through college.

KR:  Where did you go to college?

AG:  I went to Westchester State, which was one of the 13 Pennsylvania state schools, which is how I got the work study program and that sort of thing.

KR:  What was your life like when you got out of school before you got involved in the women’s movement?

AG:  Well, I think the first issue, besides the unfairness between my brother and I, was abortion. In the Catholic Church, I would go to Mass and we would get these anti-abortion sermons. And that’s not why I was going to Church. That was not what I wanted to hear. And I think I’m a very logical person. And it just struck me as completely illogical and unfair that as a woman, I couldn’t make my own decisions about my own body and particularly at that point, I was covering myself financially.

I’ve never had an abortion. I would hate to have to make that choice. But to this day, I feel strongly that a woman should control her own reproductive rights. So, after I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, and I was looking for a way to meet people. I didn’t know anyone there. I was substitute teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, which was absolutely brutal. So, I needed some other type of interest or outlet. And I was at a meeting at the YWCA in Chicago, and that’s where the NOW meetings were taking place.

And I just gravitated towards the group. And met you, Ann Ladky, Mary Jean Collins, Willie Stevens, Mary-Ann Lupa. I mean, everybody was just so welcoming to me. And I don’t know if you remember a woman by the name of Gloria Castillo, but Gloria was closer to my age. And she and I did become very good friends. But all of you in NOW, I thought of as my friends, too. And it was just such a welcoming group. And then the skills that I learned through Heather Booth’s Academy, I think, served me well throughout my life, including in the corporate world.

KR:  What kind of things were you involved in with Chicago NOW?

AG:  We had two primary focuses, the Equal Rights Amendment, which I am still working on in the state of North Carolina and nationally, and employment rights. Our big campaign was with the Sears Roebuck & Company, and there were buyer’s assistants and assistant buyers and I can’t believe I still remember to this day what the job titles were. But the job descriptions were identical. One was all women, one was all men, and the pay scale was out of whack, completely. The men made more money than the women. So we did a lot of actions around that issue. And where is Sears Roebuck today? I’m not sure. I’m still here.

Of course, the Equal Rights Amendment, marching in the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parades. I think Betty Friedan came and marched with us at least one year, which was fabulous. And we also worked on at the time, maternity as a disability. It was 1973, I believe. And I was working in Human Resources at that time and used to get into these arguments with my boss. And he said, why should you get paid time off if you have a child? And I said, because I’d be disabled, and why do you pay disability for somebody who goes out on a ski slope of their own free will and breaks their leg? They get disability.

Because he kept saying, well, if you choose to have a baby, then why should we pay your disability? Well, this guy chose to go on the ski slope and he had an accident. We paid for his disability. I just couldn’t make him understand. And it was a very conflicted life because at that time I felt like I really couldn’t come out in the workplace about my strong feminist stance. And I never had it on my resume for the longest time. If something happened, and when I was President of the chapter, I’d have to do an interview. I would run down to the lobby of the building next door and I would do an interview. And then I would go back up to my desk. And then the next day at work, somebody would say, I think I saw you on TV last night. And I would say, no, not me.

KR:  It was challenging. You were President of the Chicago NOW chapter. And what years were you involved with Chicago NOW?

AG:  Probably somewhere around 1971 to 1977 or 1978. I don’t remember the exact years I was President, and I wish I had some old photos, but I can’t find them.

KR:  What other organizations were you involved with if any, other than NOW?

AG:  I got involved with the YWCA of Metropolitan St. Louis when I lived there. We had adopted our son and he was in childcare at the YW, and they asked me to be on the board. I was on the board; I think about six years. It felt very good. Our focus was different than NOW’s focus in Chicago. We were very focused on eliminating racism. And so that was what we worked on with the Y board. And so that was one. I worked full time. I ended up with two adopted children.

And in my last job, I traveled extensively. And I had a period where my beliefs were still strong. But I really wasn’t overly active. Since I’ve retired, I have gotten involved with the League of Women Voters here in Moore County, North Carolina. And that has brought me back into the fight and totally rejuvenated me, and I’m having a real blast working with a lot of these women.

KR:  That’s great. What kind of things are you doing with them? 

AG:  Well, we went up to Raleigh last week for a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment because North Carolina has not passed it yet. And of course, as you know, it’s not been ratified. It’s not part of the Constitution yet; I believe it will be, over my dead body. But I’m hoping one of these days I will see that fulfilled since I haven’t seen a woman President yet. But I’m working on it. So, we’re doing that. We’re also, here in North Carolina, making sure we have fair electoral districts is a real challenge. So, we’re working on that. We’re working on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. It is less specifically women focused and more generally on social issues.

KR:  When you look back on your women’s movement days, are there incidents or experiences that stand out that are particularly memorable?

AG:  I think for me, Kathy, I felt great about all of it. I had difficulty getting my parents to understand what I was doing and why I was doing it. I remember we had a convention in Philadelphia, sort of towards the end of the ’70s, and it was an extremely contentious convention. Instead of staying at the conference hotel, I think I was staying at my parents’ house, and they saw how exhausted I was. In your position, you were much more at the forefront of the issues that were happening at that time than I was. But I was affected by it and did not like to see women fighting women or women struggling against each other.

But other than that, I feel like it was an incredibly growing experience. And I really feel that I probably would not have done as well in the corporate world and risen to the level that I did in the business world, if it hadn’t been for many of the skills that I learned through working with Chicago NOW.

KR:  What kind of skills?

AG:  Not letting anyone get away with it. As the head of Human Resources for a global public relations firm, I had a lot of influence. And there was one point I was the only woman, and I was promoted to a point where I was more than just the head of Human Resources. I was a member of the executive committee and I had a seat at the table, as the phrase goes. And the people I worked with, for the most part, were very open to whatever I had to say. And we won a few awards for our workplace activities as a result of some of the various programs that the members of my team and I put together to benefit women. And I’m happy to say the company continues to do those things.

KR:  That’s great. What agency were you with?

AG:  I was with Fleishman-Hillard.

KR:  They are well known for being a great employer in our business.

AG:  I was there 22 years. When I started, they had not had a human resource manager. And by the end, I was the chief talent officer. But they were very good at saying, what do we need to do, Agnes? And I would say, well, this is what you need to do and very open to suggestions. And they are very forward thinking today on a variety of gender equity issues.

KR:  Did you retire from there?

AG:  Yes, I did. I stepped out of the position in June of 2014, and then I worked on a CEO transition project for a period of time, and so essentially, I retired the end of 2015.

KR:  I know you have an MBA. How and where did that all fit in?

AG:  That’s a good question. It’s an interesting question, because I was in Chicago and we didn’t have children, and my husband traveled quite a bit at the time, and I was working for the First National Bank of Chicago. I’m not sure they even exist anymore; they are probably owned by somebody else.

I worked for the First National Bank of Chicago and was managing a trainee program where students were able to do rotational assignments within the bank and work at night on getting their MBA. And they paid my tuition. And for me at the time, it was like, why not do this? They’re paying my tuition. I have time on my hands. So, I got the MBA, and I decided to do my focus in finance, which is pretty funny because my undergraduate degree was elementary education, and I never thought of myself as a numbers person.

But it was a struggle. It was a struggle, some of it in statistics or whatever. When I was in the work world, though, I really think that as the HR person, who’s always thought of as the touchy, feely person, who doesn’t understand the concept of profit and loss, can’t read a financial statement, having that MBA from Loyola University made a difference. It made people look at me as not just the touchy-feely HR person.

KR:  How did you end up going to North Carolina then?

Well, my husband of 41, 42 years grew up in this area. I’m in the Pinehurst area, which is a big golf mecca. But my husband grew up nearby here. And it was always our plan to retire to this area. And having adopted our children at an older age, they’re still young. And they decided to stay in St. Louis. Our son is 31 and our daughter is 26. We moved here seven years ago as soon as she graduated from high school. So there have been a few issues around the fact that maybe we left her high and dry. But I like to think of it as she went away to college, but instead of her going away, we went away.

KR:  Anything that we haven’t covered that you think is important to include in this interview?

AG:  The only thing I would say is, I wish I knew how I got this way. I mentioned earlier the statement that my father made about having enough money for just one child, and it would be his son. But even before that, I just remember I would see things that I didn’t think were fair. My father’s father was born in Sicily, and he spoke with broken English. So, I think I was influenced a little bit by that and hearing the stories of his treatment as an immigrant.

So today, the issues on immigration are close to my heart. And I guess I just want to be thought of as somebody who’s been trying to fight the good fight my entire life.