Vindication for 'Vagina'

Three female students at John Jay High School who had been threatened with suspension for unauthorized use of the word "vagina" during an event sponsored by the school literary magazine now no longer need fear the punishment, thanks to an intervention by the local superintendent of schools.

John Jay principal Richard Leprine had imposed the one-day, in-school suspensions on Hannah Levinson, Megan Reback and Elan Stahl on March 2, after the girls reneged on a promise to Leprine that they would not perform a planned reading from Eve Ensler's play, "The Vagina Monologues."

In imposing the punishments, Leprine claimed that they were not an attempt at censorship, but rather imposed because the event was open to the community, including children, and that therefore, the word "vagina" was inappropriate. However, after word of the controversy reached the local press, Leprine agreed to postpone the suspensions until a meeting of the school board on Tuesday. Superintendent Robert Lichtenfeld sidestepped that public confrontation and lifted the suspensions on Monday night, after speaking with the girls and their parents.

According to news reports, the girls took turns reading excerpts from the portion of the play titled "My Short Skirt," until they came to the banned word, which they said together as a sign of unity.

"My short skirt is a liberation flag in the women's army," the crucial excerpt went. "I declare these streets, any streets, my vagina's country."

Leprine had claimed that "vagina" was too controversial a word to be uttered in the presence of younger members of the audience, explaining that, "The challenge is to balance the rights of student speakers and the sensitivities of the community." He also claimed that there was a "clear difference" between putting on a formal production of "The Vagina Monologues" and hosting an event such as the open mic session where the incident took place. The event was also videotaped by the local cable outlet for future broadcast.

The three 16-year-old girls acknowledged that they had broken their agreement with Leprine, but declared that it was wrong to censor literature and to treat the word "vagina" as something to be feared.

"When I was able to say the word 'vagina' and be proud to say it and it wasn't crude and it wasn't inappropriate and it was very real and very pure, it was important to me," Reback said on March 5. "We were willing and ready to take whatever came."

Playwright Ensler, who grew up in Scarsdale, just a few miles from the school, offered to take part in a public meeting to discuss why it was important for girls of high school age to feel comfortable saying the word "vagina," citing the fact that women are "disempowered by lack of education" as the root of much of the violence directed against women.

"What is wrong about the word 'vagina,' which is the correct biological term for a body part?" Ensler asked. "It is not slang. It is not dirty or racy. The fact that it was censored is an indication of exactly what is going on in American schools, where girls and boys are not being educated about their bodies in a healthy way. We're pushing everything into the closet."

The girls indicated that they well understood what was at stake.

"The message of this piece, if we took out the word 'vagina,' would be contradicting itself," said Stahl, a junior. "And we shouldn't have to censor it and we're not going to censor our own bodies, and we're still going to be strong, independent women in the school."