It was a job rooted in routine. That’s what I thought at first when my mother worked for JCPenney in a suburb of San Diego in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a customer service representative in the catalog department. She worked evenings, taking orders over the phone and giving people their items when they went to pick them up in the store.
But the job, I would later realize, was so much more than servicing customers. I now see how significant JCPenney, and other retail institutions, are for women. Not for its goods, but for its opportunities as I witnessed my mother figure out how to launch the second act of her career.
An immigrant from Panama with an associate degree in accounting, the JCPenney catalog department was my mother’s first job as she reentered the workforce after years as a stay-at-home mom. She worked in the department for several years, and over time we became a quintessential department store family. Our bedding, our shoes, our toys, our family photos, our hair appointments — and sometimes our optical appointments — slowly became courtesy of JCPenney.
But reading in recent weeks that the retailer filed for bankruptcy and will close some of its stores, I had a flashback to the role it played in my early years. I can’t pass a JCPenney to this day without thinking about the time my mom worked there. But I also think of how the potential demise of malls, department stores, and small businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of the second acts that the retail industry often brings for women like my mom.
The closure of stores amid the pandemic is not just a matter of communities losing jobs. It’s also women losing opportunities to have a chance at economic freedom and to support themselves and their families.
Retail work has often been the proverbial trope in television shows to illustrate women seeking independence or something to “shake up their routine” beyond things like childcare, cooking, and cleaning. But the closure of…