Women in Bonsai: Part 2


By Samantha Holm


“Demure” by Kelsey R. McDonnell.

Printed with permission from the artist.

Now that we have seen the examples of gender disparity in our bonsai club, the questions that follow are “what are the reasons for this disparity?” and “what can we do as a club to address this issue?”. To answer the first question I wanted to find out more about the women in our club as individuals. In this article I hope to address some of the possible reasons why our own female club members may not be as involved as our male club members. To do this I created a survey for the women in our club to gauge their level of interest in bonsai, to understand their artistic goals, and to discover what creates roadblocks on their path as artists. I considered factors like time, money, support, training, etc. I sent the anonymous survey to all 23 women and received 14 responses (60%).


Getting a Clearer Picture of the Women in Our Club

The majority of the women that responded to the survey are relatively new to the club. I found that 50% have been members for less than 5 years, and 71% have been members for less than 10 years. When asked how many bonsai trees they have in their collection, 57% said they had 10 or fewer. The average number of trees reported was 17, and the highest number of trees was 100 (in all stages of development). There were 3 women who did not have any bonsai trees (one is brand new and the others are part of a family membership). I found that most (80%) of the women who had 20 or more bonsai trees in their collection were also more serious about showing their trees and winning awards.


There seem to be varying degrees of participation by the women in our club. There are some who are immersed in bonsai as an art form, others who just want to enjoy bonsai as a fun hobby, and a few who choose not to work on trees at all. Some of our female club members are part of a family membership. These women are not as involved with the practice of bonsai as their spouses, and many do not have personal trees. Instead they are involved with bonsai in other ways, like serving on the board, attending meetings, and going tree collecting with their spouses. It seems they are primarily involved as support for their partners, which I find admirable. How many of us are as committed to our own spouse's hobbies?


I asked the women about their goals in their practice of bonsai. The most commonly cited goals were to “have fun experimenting with trees” (71%), “attend bonsai workshops to learn from professionals” (64%), “create beautiful works of art” (57%), and “learn as much as I can about horticulture” (50%). I found that women's aspirations of showing their bonsai trees (29%), or winning awards (14%) were not as common. One woman considered a possible future as a bonsai professional.


Although our club has less women than men, we have a portion that is very active in the club. Most of the women (62%) attend 6 or more club meetings a year. Our club has a volunteer group (the Friends of the Denver Bonsai Pavilion) that meets every Wednesday morning to assist curator Larry Jackel with the Denver Botanic Garden's bonsai collection. Larry informed me that the 5 women that volunteer regularly make up about 40% of the group.


What Are Some of the Roadblocks That Our Women Face?


The first thing that is important to point out is that all the women in our club are unique individuals who happen to share a love for bonsai. They have different backgrounds, experiences, and interests. They are of different ages, and have different careers. Some have families, some live alone. We cannot assume that all women face the same constraints on their artistic goals. However, there may be some things that many women have in common that hold them back from committing more to this art form.

One reason our women may not be as involved in bonsai is that they have a smaller amount of time available for hobbies. When I asked the women with significant others whether they or their partners spent more time on their hobbies, 50% said their partner spent more, and 40% said they both spent an equal amount. Only one woman spent more time on her hobbies than her partner. The most common things that took up time that could potentially be spent practicing bonsai were their other hobbies or interests (64%), domestic duties (43%), and time spent caring for children or the elderly (36%). A study conducted by University College London found that women are still doing the majority of housework when living with a male partner. They discovered that women do approximately 16 hours of household chores every week, while men do closer to 6 (Barr 2019). A study from Ohio State University that looked at how housework and childcare was split up between couples with a new child found that men enjoyed more leisure time, especially on the weekends, and fathers engaged in leisure 47% and 35% of the time during which mothers performed childcare and routine housework, respectively (Dush et al. 2018).


One potential barricade for women could also be access to quality material and financial resources. Women, on average, earn just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men (Bleiweis 2020). When I look at images of world class bonsai, I notice a lot of large and spectacular yamadori in beautiful pottery on top of handmade custom stands. Such displays can be quiet costly. If you have not been trained on how to collect trees from the wild (only 2 women said that they were) then you would have to purchase a yamadori. A quick look through Todd Schlafer's online inventory on firstbranchbonsai.com show raw material for $300-2,700. I asked these women how much they would be comfortable spending on a tree and found that 71% would not spend more than $300. Only one woman was potentially willing to spend $1,000-3,000 on a tree (which is what is needed to purchase larger pre-bonsai yamadori or finished bonsai in Todd's inventory).


Another barrier to women is the “boy's club” type of culture that can be prevalent when men outnumber women. In a “boy's club”, informal social bonding and networking between men results in the funneling of knowledge, resources, and career advancement for these men, while women are excluded and left behind (Kea-Lewis 2019). From what I have noticed in our club, it is much easier for a new, younger man to find mentorship than a woman. Older, more experienced male mentors take younger males under their wing and share their bonsai knowledge, gift them trees, and train them on things like how to collect yamadori. Some of these younger males even go on to win “artist of the year”, or are given positions on the board. There is also a group of younger men who get together to work on their bonsai trees, but have never invited a woman to join them. I know that some of the women feel left out by this. When I asked the surveyed women how much they felt supported, encouraged and included by members of RMBS the average answer was 3.7 (out of 5, with 5 being “very supported”), but one woman gave a 1 out of 5. I do not think that people are intentionally excluding women, and the “boy's club” culture is definitely not unique to our club, but it does make it harder for women to gain the knowledge and skills they need to advance in their art.


Lastly, there may be a few things holding women back from displaying their art at bonsai shows, including the need for additional training, support, and encouragement. In RMBS's last two bonsai shows (50th and 51st) only 14% and 23% of our female members showed a bonsai, respectively. My survey found that only 4 of those that responded have ever shown their bonsai. As I mentioned earlier, a good portion (62%) of our female members attend at least half of our club meetings each year, so they have access to presentations by our members and visiting professionals. A large number of those that responded (79%) have also attended a workshop in the past to receive help from a visiting bonsai professional. But, according to the 10 women who stated they had never shown their bonsai, the most common reasons were “I don't have a bonsai that is show quality” (70%), “I need more help with styling and/or creating a display” (50%), and “my collection is new and I don't have a finished bonsai” (40%). If these women require more training and help then one option could be a women's bonsai study group. A good portion of those surveyed (66%) were also interested (or possibly interested) in being part of a mentorship program. Perhaps we could occasionally have another member of the club give a mini presentation at the women's study group on a topic of interest (for example, tropicals), or lead a workshop. I know of one other all-woman study group that meets three to four times a year in Mesa, Arizona with Boon Manakitivipart as their mentor.


I have mentioned some impediments that I have noticed, and others that were the most common survey responses from our female membership. There are undoubtedly more that I have not mentioned that may be equally as limiting. The question remains, “why are there not as many female bonsai artists?” The answer is not that women are incapable, or lack artistic feeling or talent. It is embedded in the cultural ideas of female roles, power, time, access to resources, and thinking (Thorpe 2016). The question reminds me of the essay written by Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian, in response to the question “why have there been no great women artists?”.


“Things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education- education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals” (Nochlin 1971).


How Can We Improve as a Club?


We have a huge opportunity now to lead the way and encourage a shift within the bonsai community. Below are my ideas about changes that we could make together as a club that could make a real difference for women in bonsai. These modifications would make us a more inclusive club, and give us a better chance of retaining our current female members. I am sure that others will think of more ideas, and I would love to hear them. Part 3 of this Women in Bonsai series will follow with other ideas on how to attract more women to our club membership.

More women in leadership roles