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Gender Disparity in American Bonsai

Holm, Samantha. 2021. Bonsai - The Journal of the American Bonsai Society. Volume 55, Number 3, Pages 34- 42.

Figure 1: “Trust and Wanting” by Kelsey R. McDonnell

I have been a member of my local bonsai club for four years, and there are two things that I noticed about bonsai culture early on. The first is that most of the bonsai hobbyists/artists that I have met are wonderful, kind, helpful, passionate, and generous with their time and knowledge. The other is that, as a woman in bonsai, I was in a stark minority.

In my club women only make up 15% of the membership, and women are not well represented in leadership, as guest artists, or in exhibitions. Although I had heard that bonsai was a male-dominated art, I wondered why that was, why no one talked about it, and why people just accepted that as the way things were? Was the inequality that I saw in my club also the reality in other bonsai clubs across America?

After investigating the gender disparity in my bonsai club (“Women in Bonsai: Parts 1-3” at, I wanted to find out how well represented women are in our national bonsai community. I investigated bonsai club membership, the gender makeup of boards, the promotion and hiring of female artists, the bonsai collections in botanic gardens and bonsai museums, the employment of bonsai curators, and award winners in national bonsai shows.

Bonsai Club Members

Although there are likely many bonsai hobbyists/artists that are not members of a club, examining the gender makeup of our bonsai clubs gives us a rough way of calculating the percentage of women that are involved in the art of bonsai. In order to estimate the ratio of women bonsai artists in the USA I used the contact information listed on American Bonsai Society's website to send emails to bonsai clubs.

I received data from 55 bonsai clubs in 25 states. The average percentage of female membership was 32%, with a median of 30%. The lowest female percentage that a club had was 15%, and the highest was 67%. There were only 6 clubs (11%) where the number of women were equal to or greater than the number of men.

Directors and Board Members

To determine the ratio of women on the boards of bonsai clubs nationally, I reached out to the clubs that had previously provided membership data. I was able to gather data from 39 bonsai clubs in 25 states. I found that the average percentage of women on the board of directors of bonsai clubs was 28%, with a median of 26%. There were 5 bonsai clubs that had zero women on their board. There were 5 clubs where the number of women on the board was equal to or greater than the number of men. The highest percentage in my sample was 67%.

There are two organizations, Bonsai Clubs International (BCI), and The American Bonsai Society (ABS), that foster our local clubs and promote the knowledge of and interest in bonsai nationally. BCI currently has a woman president, Glenis Bebb, and one female vice president. Three out of the 11 directors on BCI's board are women. Women make up 29% of BCI's board members. ABS's past president, Karen Harkaway is currently their vice president and Pauline Muth is secretary, but they are the only females out of the 22 board members (9%).

I also looked into the leadership at bonsai museums and botanic gardens that have a bonsai collection. Out of 25 bonsai museums and botanic gardens that I could gather data from, 48% was the average percentage of women on their board of directors. Half (50%) of the botanic gardens have a woman as their director/president/CEO.

Professional Bonsai Artists

I reached out to ABS and BCI to find out how many professional female artists are hired for their bonsai conventions. According to Pauline Muth, past ABS president, in the last two decades there has been about 2 women out of 8 demonstrators at most ABS conventions (25%). During the last six years (2015-2020), under Glennis Bebb's presidency, 14 of the 74 demonstrators at the BCI conventions were women (19%).

Potters and Accent Artists

American Bonsai Society has a link on their website where you can see a list of American bonsai potters. Although this list is likely missing many individuals, including newer, less well-known, and potters that do not solely make bonsai pots, the list only includes 23 women out of the 102 living bonsai potters in America (23%).

Bonsai Exhibitions

I gathered data from the bonsai curators from 33 botanic gardens and bonsai museums to find out how many collections featured bonsai trees created by female artists. Of these, only 23 had recorded the gender of donating artists. To be able to compare the National Bonsai and Penjing Muesum to the rest of the bonsai collections, I only used the data from their “North American” collection. I found that within the bonsai collections of the museums and botanic gardens in America the average percentage of bonsai trees created by a female artist was 12%. There were 3 botanic gardens with bonsai collections that had 0 trees made by women. The highest percentage of bonsai trees by female artists in a single collection was 42%.

Figure 2: Olive forest by Melba Tucker. In training since 1972. Donated to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

Figure 3: Buttonwood by Mary Madison. In training since 1975. Donated to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

Curators of Bonsai Collections

Of the 33 bonsai museums and botanic gardens on my original list, 6 had a female staff member who was in charge of managing and overseeing their bonsai collection (18%). There is a wide range of bonsai experience in these staff members, from bonsai masters who have received training in Japan to horticulturalists who start with no bonsai experience and have to quickly learn how to care for bonsai on the job.

Awards for Bonsai Artists

The U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition is held every two years (since 2008) in New York. The 6th show in 2018 showcased nearly 300 bonsai trees from 27 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada. There are 11 awards given to bonsais in different categories. Since the first show, only 3 women have received an award (4%). In 2014, Louise Leister won the Yoshimura Award for finest classical bonsai, and Karen Harkaway won the Bonsai Travel Award in 2018 for her bonsai and companion combination. In 2016, Soon Chuah's accent plant, along with her husband's tiger bark fig, won the Bonsai Travel Award for their bonsai and companion combination.

The Artisan Cup took place in 2015 at the Portland Art Museum featuring 71 bonsai from across America. About 10% of the exhibition were bonsais created by female artists (7 trees). Amy Blanton tied for third place for a tree that was created by her late husband, Mike Blanton.