A Michigan art teacher said she was fired Friday for addressing a controversial symbol art historians have studied for centuries: the vagina.
Allison Wint, a substitute art teacher at Harper Creek Middle School in Battle Creek, Michigan, said she was hoping to spark a thoughtful classroom discussion on controversy in art. But her description of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting apparently went too far. The next day, the school’s principal told her she had violated its policy.
Wint told the Detroit Free Press that she had asked her students: “Imagine walking into a gallery when [O’Keefe] was first showing her pieces, and thinking, ‘Am I actually seeing vaginas here?’” Surrounded by middle school students, Wint said she expected giggles — but told the Free Press she thought the discussion remained educational and productive. She had no idea it was against school policy to “get advanced approval when discussing any form of reproductive health.”
If she had known, Wint said she would have followed the rules.
She added, “I don’t think that’s a word you should be afraid of.”
Harper Creek’s strict rules around discussing sexual health reflect those found in hundreds of schools across the country. These rules go hand-in-hand with schools’ policies on sex education, which have become increasingly limited over the past few years. According to surveys released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percent of teens that received comprehensive sex education dropped more than 10 percent for both boys over the past seven years. Meanwhile, abstinence-only sex education has flourished.
Even teaching about the science of sexual reproduction can end a career. In 2013, Idaho parents argued that their children’s 10th grade science teacher was showing them “inappropriate material” in class. The material in question? A biology textbook with an illustration of a woman’s reproductive system. He also said ‘vagina.’
The punishment for speaking frankly about anatomy can extend beyond the classroom.
After the story broke of Wint’s firing, Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown (D) retweeted the story with the comment “sound familiar?” In a 2012 fight against a bill that would regulate abortion providers and clinics out of existence, Brown made her stance clear. “Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested my vagina, but no means no,” she said.
A day later, she was banned from the House floor. Many of her colleagues said her decision to use the word ‘vagina’ was inappropriate.
According to fellow state Rep. Mike Callton (R), “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
This extreme taboo around the word ‘ vagina’ is dangerous, according to Wint, who is now looking for a new job.
“Being afraid of the word … creates an aura of shame around the body part,” Wint told the Detroit Free Press.