Any serious discussion of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is bound to touch upon her provocative use of feminine imagery.

The great American painter is celebrated not only for her renditions of Southwestern landscapes and New York skyscrapers, but also for her iconic, colorful flowers. Despite repeated denials by the artist prior to her death 30 years ago, critics have long held that those flowers were overt allusions to female genitalia.

Allison Wint, a substitute teacher at a middle school in Battle Creek, Mich., told the Detroit Free Press that she was hoping to provoke a thoughtful dialogue about historical interpretations of O’Keeffe’s work on Friday when she used the word “vagina” during a discussion with eighth graders.

Now, Wint claims that the verbal reference to female anatomy — a word she freely admits to having used — has cost her a job at Harper Creek Middle School.

“Yes, I did say that word; however, I was saying it in the context of art history,” she told CBS affiliate WWMT. “I wasn’t being vulgar.”

The Michigan school district denies she was “fired.”

Let’s consider a few things here.  The teacher in question was a substitute procured through a third party agency.  If you are not invited back, that isn’t really being fired.

Secondly, the sub  was dealing with 8th graders.  That age level is not where you experiment with new words.  That’s probably the last place I would say the word “vagina,” even if I were discussing the work of Georgia O’Keefe, who does happen to be one of my favorite artists.

Lest someone think I am being a bit of a tight-ass about this one, let’s look at the situation from a different perspective.  If you were subbing in a Geography class of …oh …8th graders, and you were discussing the Florida coast line, would you say that many people think that Florida looks like a penis?  No.  No one would be that stupid.  (nor would anyone attempt to teach that “penis” and “peninsula” all have the same root.)  Just let it go.

Common sense, age group, and yes, tenure, all come in to place here.  Leave body parts and genitalia out of lessons about art and geography.  It’s really a no-win situation.  The kids are too young and immature and schools are too volatile as far as parents go.  Rightly or wrongly, some parents don’t want little Susie or Johnny to hear the word “vagina” in class, especially in mixed company.  Even if you think their protectiveness is ridiculous, you aren’t going to win that fight, so don’t even engage.    The teacher appeared young.

The young sometimes just don’t understand that while it might be stupid and ignorant not to recognize that many of O’Keefe’s paintings seemed to be about feminism, it isn’t always the wisest to discuss it in terms of body parts.  There are people who are ill-at-ease with comparing giant flowers to vaginas.  When you open your own art studio, have at it.  When you are being paid out of public coffers, your academic license might be on a leash.  Know when discretion is the better part of valor.

Finally, the work of Georgia O’Keefe is more than just a collection of vaginas.



13 Thoughts to “Georgia O’Keefe, Michigan schools and vaginas”

  1. Steve Thomas

    I’ve read several accounts on different sources, and even heard the teacher in her own words. She admits to uttering the proper medical term for female genitalia, and acknowledges that while she was unaware of the policy, she understands completely why she was fired.

    This is where some common sense would be nice. The term used is a proper medical term. It was used in a legitimate instructional context, she admits to making an honest mistake and nothing indicates that she had sinister intentions.

    I hope the school system will consider reinstating her.

  2. Steve Thomas

    I’ve read several accounts on different sources, and even heard the teacher in her own words. She admits to uttering the proper medical term for female genitalia, and acknowledges that while she was unaware of the policy, she understands completely why she was fired.

    This is where some common sense would be nice. The term used is a proper medical term. It was used in a legitimate instructional context, she admits to making an honest mistake and nothing indicates that she had sinister .

    I hope the school system will consider reinstating her.

    And I not trying to be contrarian here. I admit that Moon had a lifetime’s more knowledge regarding what is grade-level appropriate in this case. She’s applying real-world experience and critical thinking to analyse the news reports, and fill in the gaps. Therefore, her opinion should carry more weight, as my experience in this realm is limited to a couple of Education electives in college

    1. I don’t want her fired either. I just was addressing the wisdom of discussing body parts with 8th graders. Absolutely the teacher used proper medical terms. However, in school settings, proper and clinical etc., don’t carry as much weight as they should.

      The bottom line is, I find most schools and in most cases, to be incredibly chicken and they don’t back you up in these types of situations.
      Stick to the boring side of Georgia O’Keefe.

      The school is using weasel words also. She is a sub from an outside agency. They can’t really fire her, they can just not have her back and blackball her. It sounds to me like some administrator got a complaint and got all hysterical.

      I think the teacher was actually very mature.

      1. Steve Thomas


        I wonder if she had used the term in “Health Class” (do they even offer that anymore?) or 8th grade biology, would she have faced a similar sanction?

        I remember hearing the term in these settings, with illustrated diagrams and everything.

      2. There are still health classes and that is where FLE is taught, in Va schools. Vagina would have been ok there.
        [UPDATE] I failed to mention those kinds of health classes are usually same-sex.

        Before anyone asks…no, I do not know which class the transgendered students would go to.

      3. Steve Thomas


        So it’s OK in Health or Biology class, but the same students hearing the same word in an Art History class, that’s verboten? And if someone with a vagina, but taking hormones and dressing like a boy must be granted access to the boys bathroom/locker room, or a boy, lacking a vagina can demand the same access to the girls bathroom/locker room, or the school system risks violating IX, and losing Dept of Education money…

        Do I have my facts correct here?

      4. Yes, OK in health class. If its FLE class kids have parental permission to be there or more specifically, have not been opted out.

        Biology class–probably vagina would come up not in relation to human beings at that age. I don’t know what the standards are there. Art history…I wouldn’t for the reasons I stated. I am not saying that is how it should be. I am just saying common sense tells you not to go where angels fear to tread. It isn’t worth it to me.

        Let me throw in that I found out that quite a few things were;t worth the fight…things that I still prize as ideals like not cheating .

        I don’t know about the bathrooms. That was after my time. I will say this. I wouldn’t make a state law about any of it. I would let each school make the accommodations needed for that school and that student population. That just seems the most sensible.

        These issues with adults are either going to be behind a stall door or….if anatomically corrected, shouldn’t matter anyway.

        Something to consider…a transgendered teen is going to put up with a lot of crap and bullying from others. The safest environment is what should really the most important consideration.

        What do you call people who are naturally boys but who come across as girls? (and vice versa) My LGBT alphabet is empty on that one. Are those people naturally transgendered?

      5. Steve Thomas


        “What do you call people who are naturally boys but who come across as girls? (and vice versa) My LGBT alphabet is empty on that one. Are those people naturally transgendered?”

        “Transgendered” is a made-up word, and since we have had words to accurately describe these conditions, I refuse further indulge this madness.

        A man who dresses like a woman, is a transvestite. A man or a woman who desires to be anatomically altered is a pre-op trans-sexual.

        A Homosexual Male is commonly referred to as gay. His female counterpart is a Lesbian.

        Not sure what “Queer” means today, but it used to mean a flamboyantly gay man, who acted in an effeminate manner, but made no claim of being a woman. Lesbians used to self-describe as “Butch” which meant they mimicked men, but did not claim to be men. A Lesbian that acted like a woman, was a woman.

        Now we have people, whose DNA (irrevocable) and external anatomy (revocable) are Male or Female, but they just “decide” they are the opposite sex, and demand that the world acknowledge and accept this.

        Remember Rachel Dolezal? She was born a Caucasian woman, but “Identifies as Black”. Ironically, she had once sued a black college for not giving her a job, based on the fact that she was white. Later, she “identified” as black, and manage to get herself appointed as an NAACP chapter president.

        When have we ever been forced to accept someone’s fantasy? So, I should be able to wake up tomorrow, and decide that I am now a “woman”. Eh…that’s small potatoes. I will decide that I am the first Asian Woman President. I should be able to walk into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, and use any bathroom I choose. Afterall, the fact that I never ran or was elected president, don’t have a bit of Asian ancestry, and I am genetically male, fully-matured, shouldn’t prevent me from being acknowledged as what I have decided I am.

        When I read, watch, or listen to reports on all of this madness, with companies like Target deciding that opening up their bathrooms to Larry, who decided to become “Lorretta”, is a smart business decision, or schools being extorted and coerced by the courts and the department of Education to either allow teens to use whichever facilities they choose, or lose their Federal Funding, or the military being forced to allow “transgender” service members in to their ranks, I now know what one must feel as they slip into insanity.

        The world just stops making sense. People have stopped making sense. It must be be me, because everyone is telling me that suddenly, it is MY thinking that is wrong. Do you know where this tactic is employed, today? North Korea. It’s called brain-washing.

        From 1984:
        Look at my hand, Winston. Right now, you see indeed four fingers held up to you. But as you can see (O’Brien uncovers his thumb, showing all five fingers), I have in fact five fingers. That is the essence of the Party, Winston: you think you know the truth by seeing things with your senses, but as you can see, your senses can disappoint you. The Party knows everything, is everything: the Party knows that there are five fingers here, even if you only see four of them. The Party knows the truth that you cannot see from the place you are standing at, because you are weak alone. The Party is strong and omniscient, and therefore if the Party says that two and two equals three, or five, it will always be right: you, by yourself, cannot know the truth.

        An oblong slip of newspaper had appeared between O’Brien’s fingers. For perhaps five seconds it was within the angle of Winston’s vision. It was a photograph, and there was no question of its identity. It was the photograph. It was another copy of the photograph of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford at the party function in New York, which he had chanced upon eleven years ago and promptly destroyed. For only an instant it was before his eyes, then it was out of sight again. But he had seen it, unquestionably he had seen it! He made a desperate, agonizing effort to wrench the top half of his body free. It was impossible to move so much as a centimetre in any direction. For the moment he had even forgotten the dial. All he wanted was to hold the photograph in his fingers again, or at least to see it.

        ‘It exists!’ he cried.

        ‘No,’ said O’Brien.

        He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.

        ‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.’

        ‘But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’

        ‘I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.

        Winston’s heart sank. That was doublethink.

      6. Steve, I think this is all so new that probably no, you don’t have your facts correct.

        These are uncharted waters for many/ (most?) of us.

      7. Not to sound like Steve Jobs but …one more thing..Each school district is probably unique as far as using anatomically correct words. It might be perfectly OK to say “vagina” in art class. I don’t know. I am just saying if I were a sub..I would not do it.

  3. middleman

    I agree that eighth grade is a little early to get into discussions about how vagina’s relate to art, but from what I remember most kids are pretty familiar with the territory by that age, and in my day we didn’t have easy access to internet porn!

    The bigger issue in my mind is how we prioritize our childhood protection. We allow them to wallow in ultra-violence all day long, but have a teacher mention a vagina and she must be banned! We really haven’t moved that far past Victorian-Puritan sensibilities, and I think that may actually harm the kids in that sexuality isn’t presented by elders as a beautiful way to show love for a partner, so youngsters define their sexuality on their own. The way oral sex is used now as a way to secure a friendship is one manifestation of this.

    1. Middleman, I don’t disagree with you at all. I was thinking of teacher protection in my mind as I addressed the topic. Why bring that kind of wrath on yourself.

      1. middleman


        I hear ya. Hopefully she learned her lesson!

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