“Penis, Penis, PENIS!”: The Legend of Nancy Silberkleit

by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Nancy Silberkleit is, by trade, an elementary school art teacher. She worked with kids in New Jersey, helped set up art education programs in schools and group homes and, according to her official biography, “was instrumental in launching the Hudson Valley Children’s Museum, located in Nyack, New York.” Additionally — in the parlance of those of us who have taken art classes — she emitted hella art teacher vibes. Silberkleit had long grey hair, glasses, with the air of having been a hippie at one point. Most prominently, her demeanor was kind, engendered trust; she spoke patiently and deliberately.

In 2008, when her husband Michael Silberkleit passed away from cancer, Nancy inherited his position as co-CEO of Archie Comics, the company his father Louis co-founded in 1939. In her interviews, she spoke passionately about education, against bullying, about loving words. In July 2012, in San Diego for Comic-Con, she explained to local news station KUSI that she wanted Archie Comics to “engage [children] in the love of reading.” Explaining her anti-bullying foundation, Rise Above!, and the accompanying comic book, she said, “One message is, never let anyone define who they want you to be.”

There is no template for the type of woman accused of workplace sexual harassment, although if modern fictional media is to believed, it is not Nancy Silberkleit. Only 16 percent of all charges are filed by men, who are also the most commonly accused. But in fictional media, women sexual harassers tend to be portrayed through a misogynistic lens: they’re vixens, or voracious career-mongers. Wuornos types. Think of Sandra Bullock’s character, in the 2009 rom-com The Proposal; lithe in power suits, she wields her position as a publishing executive to force a lesser employee, Ryan Reynolds, to marry her to avoid deportation. (Spoiler: they end up falling in love.) Or Jennifer Aniston, America’s sweetheart, who plays a conniving sex maniac in 2011’s Horrible Bosses: a toned, ferocious dentist who blackmails her charges into sleeping with her, or else. They are feckless male fantasies of sexual harassers by whom some brohams out there would, in theory only, “want” to be approached. Women who are just out there for some action, whose only true crime is their ambition, but who will either pack it in for lurve or eventually get their slapstick comeuppance.

Nancy Silberkleit, the former elementary school art teacher, has been accused by male employees of Archie Comics for sexual harassment, accusing her of referring to them not by their government names, but as “penis.” The $32.5 million lawsuit was initially filed in July of 2011, and led to a restraining order against Silberkleit and countersuit in which Silberkleit and co-CEO Jon Goldwater — son of another Archie co-founder, John Goldwater — battled for the future of the company. In 2012, the restraining order was lifted, but this October, the original harassment lawsuit was reinstated.

The details are labyrinthine, but the pull quote is writ large: as reported in 2011 by TMZ, the lawsuit stated that in 2009, Silberkleit “barged into a meeting, ‘pointed to each [attendee] and said, ‘PENIS, PENIS, PENIS, PENIS’ and then walked out.’ Nancy allegedly pulled the same ‘penis’ stunt again in 2010 — but this time she also screamed out, ‘My balls hurt.’”

Silberkleit is accused of all sorts of other sordid and dramatic behavior in the lawsuit, including allegedly dispatching a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang as well as a former NFL player to hit up company headquarters and intimidate employees; and various other “destructive, dangerous, and at times deranged behavior”; and telling one employee that, “All you penises think you can run me out.”

The complaint is not without its own flair, however; drawing on Archie Comics’ squeaky clean image, it reads, “While World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not stop the publication of Archie Comics. The war-like attitude and approach of Defendant may destroy Archie Comics unless this Court intervenes.” All hail the greatest fucking generation. Silberkleit has filed her own sexual harassment charges; her lawyer responded to the Archie employees’ suit by saying that it has no weight since “white men aren’t part of a protected class.”

If the accusations against Nancy Silberkleit are true, it’s pretty appalling and untenable. No one deserves to be treated poorly in the workplace, especially fearing for their personal safety. And yet. There’s something about Silberkleit’s story that resonates, a kernel of something under there we can understand. It’s not just that her alleged “Penis! Penis! PENIS!” moment sounds like a scripted montage from a feminist movie that counters the mainstream image of the glamorous woman sexual harasser — a sort of workplace answer to Teeth. Silberkleit’s story resonates with women because we have seen so much of the behavior that, one suspects, might lead up to an outburst like the “Penis!” incident. Those of us who have been subject to workplace discrimination, harassment or otherwise, have felt the pressure of having to work triply hard and clock longer hours and be eminently smarter than our male counterparts, only to watch them receive the peach appointments and assignments and paychecks. We have felt the humiliation of our ideas being discounted and of being spoken over in meetings; one in five of us has been subject to unwanted advances, to objectification, and other forms of sexual harassment. It culminates into a kind of fury that can bring us to our basest, most animal instincts, the echo of “PENIS! PENIS! PENIS!” resonating in our brains — if not out of our mouths.

It culminates into a kind of fury that can bring us to our basest, most animal instincts, the echo of “PENIS! PENIS! PENIS!” resonating in our brains — if not out of our mouths.

While many of the stories on the Archie suit are more than happy to cast her Silberkleit as the crazed villain, objectivity demands imagining the other side of things. For the sake of speculation, imagine the hypothetical alternate scenario: art teacher is widowed and inherits deceased husband’s high-end position at male-dominated company; male co-CEO Goldwater doesn’t like sharing his job; woman does her best to apply her experience with children to elevating comics geared to children; male employees don’t like being bossed around by a woman, who — this part is real — they accuse of aspiring to be their “Dictator.” (Fill in your own penis joke here.) Silberkleit’s countersuits have barely been reported, perhaps because plain old, man-on-woman sexual harassment doesn’t grab the same kinds of headlines until it’s large-scale and undeniable, a la the US military. But the statements in her court affadavit are telling:

Mr. Goldwater insults me both privately and in the presence of others. He has called me ‘stupid,’ a ‘moron,’ and ‘despicable.’ He has told me and others that I am hated by everyone in the company…. Mr. Goldwater long ago and repeatedly has told some employees and also people within the industry that he would get rid of me one way or the other.

And, according to Comics Bulletin: “Silberkleit maintains that Goldwater refused to seek her advice in company matters, that he ‘hates the requirement.’ Her affidavit goes on to say Goldwater ‘chauvinistically seeks to undermine, exclude and not engage in any meaningful consultation with me.’”

Midway through 2013, Silberkleit launched an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Rye, N.Y., against two city council members. The only woman on the mayoral ballot, and with no prior government experience, she was inspired to vie for the position after speaking to residents who went without electricity long after Hurricane Sandy. She ran under the dual platforms of environmentalism and government transparency. In November, she told the Rye Patch, “I am a creative thinker, love people and respect one’s personal perspective. Further, as a teacher I naturally understand one’s thinking and am adaptable to all kinds of situations.”

Photo via tom1231/flickr.

Previously: Hard Out Here for a White Feminist

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.