Allison Wint (image via WWMT)

Allison Wint (image via WWMT)

A substitute teacher in West Michigan was allegedly fired last week for using the word “vagina” while introducing a class of eighth graders to the very vaginal paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Allison Wint, 24, used “an anatomical word,” as WWMT squeamishly puts it, while teaching an eighth-grade art class at Harper Creek Middle School in Battle Creek, Michigan. “Imagine walking into a gallery when [O’Keeffe] was first showing her pieces, and thinking, ‘Am I actually seeing vaginas here, am I a pervert? I’m either a pervert or this woman was a pervert,’” Wint recalls saying, as the Detroit Free Press reports. The class of 25 students laughed, of course.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow” (1923), oil on canvas (photo by Cliff/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

But the school’s principal, Kim Thayer, was not amused. Wint claims she was sacked for using the word “vagina … without previous approval,” a violation of the school’s policy, which stipulates that teachers “are required to get advanced approval when discussing any form of reproductive health.” (Never mind that Wint was obviously not discussing reproductive health.) “[The principal] said there are a thousand other ways to teach controversy, and that it was inappropriate,” Wint told the Free Press.

Hyperallergic reached out to Harper Creek Middle School to ask how the principal might suggest describing a Georgia O’Keeffe painting without using the words “vagina” or “vaginal.” Yonic? Vulvar? Snatch-y? Pussy-like? The school responded with a press release about the story that denies Wint’s claims about the reasons for her dismissal. School administrators did not respond to requests for further comment.

Since Wint was fired, outraged netizens have swamped the middle school’s Facebook page with critical comments, demanding that Wint be rehired and making their fair share of vagina jokes. Wint also defended herself from the school’s ridiculous puritanism. “Yes, I did say that word, however I was saying it in the context of art history; I wasn’t being vulgar,” she told WWMT. “I thought if I used a euphemism, that would make it into a joke. And I don’t think that’s a word you should be afraid of. I honestly had no words, because I’ve always been an advocate of not censoring art and music and writing. I was really invested in those kids, and I miss them a lot.” If any schools in Michigan are looking for a substitute art teacher, Allison Wint is available.

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

78 replies on “Art Teacher Claims She Was Fired for Saying “Vagina” During Georgia O’Keeffe Lesson”

  1. Meh … they were just looking for a way to get rid of her. People don’t get “fired” for such things. That she’s making a big public story of this indicates there was bad blood there. I’ve had a teaching job revoked for silly reasons, when the real reason is the faculty just felt threatened by me. We didn’t get along.

    1. That may be true, but by affirming that the reason for firing her was that her use of the word was against the school regulations, the headmaster has made that the only reason for the sack, a reason that will nullify any subsequent ‘convenient ‘ reasons they may come up with- even if they were true.

      1. The headmaster has not stated the reason for the sack. The vagina story is the former teacher’s. I did some snooping around on facebook to see if people were discussing it and turns out lots people didn’t care for her or want kids in her classes. Personally, I don’t care about any of it other than being curious about “the other side of the story” which the media never gives, as that would lessen the outrage / viewer attention.

        1. You are right in that we have only Miss Wint’s’ words for it but the following is a statement of facts and would if not true be paramount to a direct lie : ….a violation of the school’s policy, which stipulates that teachers “are required to get advanced approval when discussing any form of reproductive health.” “[The principal] said there are a thousand other ways to teach controversy, and that it was inappropriate,”

          1. The statement was not why she was sacked, only that she violated ways to teach controversy. This teacher’s account is that she was sacked for using a single word. That isn’t believable. But if she teaches O’Keeffe with a game of “who’s the pervert?”, it suggest she’s not a good art history teacher.

    2. She is just a substitute teacher. She can be “released” (using the word that school districts use for fired) for just about any mistake. Subs are not union unless they are hired full-time.

  2. All of nature is reproduction – O’Keeffe’s painting of flowers and landscapes were her own “style”…..she herself when asked about the sexual “symbolism” denied it and I applaud her for that – when teaching about a particular artist’s style and subject matter – one should not “plant” the idea of what “is” in the students minds….let them discover the beauty and the meaning for themselves- when I was in art school there was an instructor who said the front design of a certain type of car bumper was deliberately shaped like a “vagina”….give me a break !!! Certainly there are better ways to teach – intelligently and creatively without using the words “penis” and “vagina”. If that is all you are capable of – go somewhere else please.

    1. She said it was vaginal.
      That seems to be a fair assessment to me.

      Even assuming your comment is correct, is that really grounds for sacking someone.
      Which employment law is she in violation of? Giving a fair and honest opinion?

      People use metaphors all the time. What would you use to describe the painting?

    2. Aren’t “penis” and “vagina” the correct words? Believe me when I say these things come up all the time when teaching middle school art, usually by the students. Teachers should supply the correct vocabulary in a matter-of-fact way.

      1. However, when it is appropriate….the paintings we are talking about are so multi-dimensional in style, design, colour……laying another image on top of that or attempting to give it ONE symbolic meaning- is not justified.

  3. Why exactly are the words “penis” and “vagina” so shameful? I’ll tell you why; our puritanical culture of shame. It’s completely ridiculous. We need to get over it. It’s a body part.

  4. So what century is this? When I was in a middle school classroom the teacher would make a serious face and demand tge class to take those words seriously. Last time I checked vagina was the proper word for vagina. Why else would doctors use it? Because it’s fun? This woman principal needs a reality check and a prudemeter in her office.

  5. Well, given that it was the 8th grade,I would simply have left the implication there. The boys in the back of the room would have snickered and the point would have been made.

  6. In a culture where young women are displayed like pieces of meat for the male gaze on your average newsstand, and on 50foot billboards in your major cities, where boys can type “porn” into their google search engines and be directed to gonzo porn where women are used and abused for their sexual delight, this just drives home the woman-hating that abounds today. We can’t speak the word for our own biology without upsetting transactivists claiming to be us, and being smeared as a transphobes, and now this. What a sad world we live in.

  7. The word should really have been “vulva.” The vagina inside the body. The anatomical feature that O’Keefe’s paintings bring to (some people’s) mind is the vulva.
    That said, I agree with Majda that the teacher was wrong to make it a discussion about perversion!

    1. How is it a perversion?

      You Americans must lead such sheltered lives to be so shocked by this.
      Which is ironic given the scale of the porn industry.

      1. It’s because a considerably large percentage of Americans are religious assholes who think that anything that even resembles a human body part shouldn’t be shown to children, even if they can see them at home or on themselves. It’s nothing but backwards, dark ages nonsense. So, today in the US it’s almost impossible to teach children because of religious hysteria.

  8. okay… the details aren’t clear, because the school is denying her story… but… assuming it IS true, I can’t be 100% on her side on this one. Sure it’s probably difficult to discuss O’Keefe’s work without saying the word “vagina” (or, more accurately “vulva,” but that’s splitting hairs). But she said to the press she thought if she used a euphemism, that would make it into a joke. But she made a cheap joke about how seeing suggestions of anatomy in art when it was unintended makes the viewer a pervert, or intentional depictions of anatomy in art make the artist a pervert. So who is making the discussion into a joke here?

    I wouldn’t have fired her, but here’s just a little tip for the next time you talk to middle schoolers about Georgia O’Keefe. Say this “O’Keefe’s work is rich with metaphors that celebrate female anatomy.” And then you let them draw their own conclusions and quietly giggle to themselves.

    1. Marc Ludena- Her paintings were NOT a celebration of female anatomy….go learn more about art and artists.

      1. Zuska-
        I know plenty about art and artists. O’Keefe’s work has never been something I’ve been terribly interested in, but okay…perhaps you are right. For her part, O’Keefe always denied that her work was referencing anatomical motifs. I haven’t read every word she’s said on the subject, so I don’t know if she elaborated on her feelings about the fact that many people saw vulvas in her work. Certainly her denials did nothing to convince the public at large, and since an artist’s intention is only part of the equation when one is engaging with a piece of art, it’s fair to discuss the imagery and metaphors that the viewer sees in the piece, regardless of intention. So I amend my statement above. If the teacher felt the need to go into that part of the discussion of O’Keefe’s work (and with 8th graders, I don’t know that it’s necessary), then she could say “SOME PEOPLE view O’Keefe’s work as rich with metaphors that celebrate female anatomy.”

        feel better now?

        1. I feel fine, thanks. I’ll bet that if one researched extensively, one would find that “some people” and, the “public at large”, that the “female anatomy” discussed related to her work, was primarily by men. In this format a somewhat moot point – however these stereotypical points of view travel swiftly into the public domain- and remain frozen there for eons.

          1. Sorry, avoiding the “vaginal” aspect of O’Keeffe’s work is sophistry. [ One reason Loie Hollowell is getting traction is she is making Neo-Judy Chicago / O’Keeffe paintings that are talked about as vaginal (thus “feminist”). ] Artist’s statements on their own art are not authoritative in any way. Kara Walker says she’s not a “political” artist. Lawrence Weiner does not like being called a Conceptual artist. Andy Warhol agreed with a journalist who said pop art was boring and worn out. Vanessa Beecroft said she was disgusted and offended by her own work when a “feminist” accused her of making disgusting and offensive art. When artists get famous, they don’t want to be pigeon holed. One way to manage that, if your art doesn’t change, is be counterintuitive in the way you talk about it.

            There’s your art history lesson.

          2. Bam Bam….Well, the words we have on earth, in any language, do not “suffice” for anything resembling the feelings, and, deep seated desires or communication for anyone – let alone artists. When did the use of words become SO important when sharing artistic work? I would say, when the critic got involved for the purpose of making a salary doing it in modern times. The artist is often “forced” to use words – the fine artist as well as the actor artist, and in many other artistic areas. Let the work “hang itself”…shut up and think about it- rather than using far less meaningful words to describe it—or live with it in schools, and in real life…people have said the colours in Morrisseau paintings “healed” them- this a new area of health just opening up, with health professionals…colours related to healing centres in the human body. A case in point, related to words saying less, is your name, “Bam Bam”. Blessings be (-Morrisseau.)

          3. First your problem was the word vagina. Now the problem is words themselves. Very well. My only reason for responding is it was entirely unfair for you to pick a gender-war fight and defend your doing so with transparently bogus ideas about art, writing, and gender.

  9. The real problem is she was telling the students what they should see. Georgia O’Keefe did not name it vigina and denied that’s what it is ! It should up to them to decide what they see.

    1. Unless you have a transcript of the lesson, it is unfair to claim she told the class “what to see”.

      1. don’t need a transcript. the article says she used the word vagina in introducing the piece. That influences their perception of the piece. She could have said oyster.

        1. But you said, “The real problem is she was telling the students what they should see.”

          How do you know that is what she said?
          You are making an assumption that she told them what to see.
          For all I know their had been a wider discussion where the students put forward their ideas.

          The teacher may have said that among various possibilities of interpretations, the painting resembles a vagina.

          Apart from which she is teaching a class. Everyone criticising her on her teaching abilities have all failed to tell me, as a non teacher, what alternative description she should give.
          The implication is that she should give NO description of the painting.

          That would seem to me to restrict discussion and explanation as to render the lesson useless.

  10. ‘Am I actually seeing vaginas here, am I a pervert? I’m either a pervert or this woman was a pervert,’” That is what is objectionable—and degrading to Georgia O’Keefe’s work….such an ignorant statement.

  11. How can you not say the word ‘vagina’ when discussing O’Keefe paintings? Should have used the world ‘vulva’. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the principal is unfamiliar with that word.

  12. The teacher had been disciplined earlier in the year for hanging a sign behind her desk that the student had made. The sign was pro-gay marriage.

  13. Why do you write those two words in such a strange way? Is it because of some PU RIT AN I CAL upbringing, or just because you are trying so hard to be an AS SH OLE?

    1. Some guys sound very emotional and overreacting here. He reads the word “vagina” then he’s super excited and scream his angyness everywhere like a panicked dog pees everywhere. Don’t pay attention, I just flagged all his posts and reported his profile as SPAM, may I suggest you to do the same?

      1. I can see your point, and why you have flagged his responses. But I hope it does not include the fact that he has merely used these words. As we know, fifty-some years ago the courts decided that the C and F words, along with others, were permissable in the writings of Henry Miller, thus permitting them across the board.

        That said, as those books are available to all, I’m surprised that Discus automatically deletes words that one may encounter there and elsewhere.

        I understand the concern regarding children, but in today’s world we can only hope to instill in them some sense of personal values. We cannot guard them from a hostile world. We can only do our best to educate them in a way to deal with whatever they encounter.

        1. No I did it because he used these words as an insult, because he’s very agressive and obviously trolling and because it’s purely Spam (10 messages of just one line suggesting every woman is a Cu nt is spam).
          The terms and conditions of Disqus clearly mention that they do not tolerate harrasment or violence (or Spam).

          1. That’s what I thought, and why I said I could see your point.

            I meant to edit out “even derogatotily” and add the word “merely” which I’ve now done. I should re-read before I post.

            Thanks for your comments.

    2. Just as well. I take it then that as you have put yourself to some effort, you are just trying hard to be . . .
      Well, you know what I mean. Just saying . . .

      1. Glad you got that out of your system, kid. I’m sure your mommy and daddy will now know what a big boy you’ve become for using such words.

    3. going by Stan’s reply to above he is lacking wits, hence his limited and obscene vocabulary

  14. If this is the reason that she was fired. There can be 100 other causes that predisposed this event, and this incident was just the finishing touch, so to speak. For every story, there’s two sides, and then there’s the truth.

  15. I am sure I have said vagina or terms meaning the same thing when talking about art with my middle school art students—I mean jeez, it is just a part of our anatomy. And if I had a dime for every time I said penis, I wouldn’t have to teach public school to supplement my life as an artist. More often than not, however, it is in this context: Would you stop drawing penises and do your assignment please?

  16. I am a former public school art teacher (briefly, just out of college) and really admire Georgia O’Keeffe. I am also about as liberal as anyone on here. AND I happen to live in Western Michigan (about as conservative as it gets).
    These were 14-year-old kids! She showed no sensitivity to her environment, no understanding of the art and artist, and has done tremendous damage to promoting arts among the Philistines.
    I would not only call for her firing, I would insist she go to an arts re-education/sensitivity-training program.

    1. Nope. We need to desensitize students to words that correctly describe human biological form. The word is not offensive of itself.

      1. rawbun- You’re off the point – art is not taught, and never has been taught, or critiqued for that matter, based on “human biological form”. A tree could look like a giant green leafy “penis” in a painting – give me a break !!

      2. There are ways to go about doing that. A substitute teacher who is both ignorant about art and community values is NOT the right person to do it. She has set back the cause. I don’t know how old you are, but my children and now my grandchildren have no problem using the correct terms. This substitute didn’t even know the difference between vulva and vagina. And she reduced art to an anatomy lesson that was inaccurate, simplistic and offensive on many levels.

    2. Ranina- As a senior artist-sculptor-painter-scholar….I agree with your every word. Anyone who teaches art – should be required to “know” about art and artists. It would have been ‘better’ for that teacher to show the students “intimate” photos of flowers and then have a creative and intelligent discussion – comparing flowers to O’Keefe’s paintings. Male critiques of her work, for dozens of years, have remarked on their visual interpretation of her work to female body parts- well “simple head” SO WHAT???

      1. Thank you! Not to mention this was a *substitute* teacher who should have had some curricula to follow. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who retired recently from teaching Jr High English just sent me the book “Georgia” – her book club loved it. Even though she had tenure and could do virtually anything without being fired, she would never remotely have considered having her class read that book.

        1. It was reported, just now on Artnet News on the web, that the teacher said she used the word vagina – 10 times !!!!

          1. No, Artnet News didn’t report that. They just reblogged from Detroit Free Press. Everyone is trying to track down this teacher and none of us can find her.

  17. I didn’t know there WERE any CORRECT WORDS, only words and how they are used at various times (in history), or in various contexts. I think your context is off, unless you simply mean to be obnoxious. In that case you are succeeding.

  18. And this is why we can’t have nice things…that don’t have protestors projecting their bias on them at least. The Guggenheim should call itself “Art’s Labia and Uterus” and ask Michigan to comment.

  19. “Yes, I did say that word, however I was saying it in the context of art history; I wasn’t being vulgar,” No. She said Vagina. (come on this story has to be told right if you tell it. Don’t shove Eve Ensler back into the granny panty because …history.)

  20. I’m with the school on this one. What you do with your kid in your home is up to you. Nothing delicate about my sensibilities. Not very professional at all. Hopefully this “teacher” will learn that when minors are in your charge you have to err on the conservative side and not just pop off. Even being raised in the very liberal SF Bay Area teachers know this.

  21. Well well. Censorship is fun. Kinda ironic eh? This just reinforces my sense that there was a lot more to this story than that what appears here. Hyperallergic, I hope you do better because there’s enough good content here that makes this site worth it. But this week has been a doozy. Very off putting. Especially for a community about art and artists.

  22. File this under the category of ‘more Christian hysteria’. OUTRAGEOUS! And huge shame on the school for this nonsense. It’s gotten to the point where kids won’t be able to learn because of their parents ridiculous urge to ‘protect’ them from the entire freaking world! Should be ashamed of themselves.

  23. That school policy is ridiculous, course. Interestingly, O’Keefe always claimed that her paintings were not meant to be erotic.

  24. Hyperellergic and all the people demanding this art teacher be rehired (substitute teachers don’t exactly get fired, they just don’t get called back) are missing two critical points: Firstly, that teacher doesn’t know what she’s talking about. O’Keefe always denied that her paintings were ” vaginal” and erotic, as is stated in the Guardian article. Did the person who wrote this story for Hyperellergic even bother to read the article before linking it or do a little research on O’Keefe? Further, even if people see vaginas in the paintings, that doesn’t make them perverts, as there should be nothing perverse about female genetalia. It certainly doesn’t make the artist a pervert because that isn’t how she intended her work to be interpreted in the first place.

    Should the teacher have been disciplined for her comments? No. She shouldn’t be called back to teach art simply because she’s a lousy art teacher.

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