the feminist argument for mail-order brides

Why the long-stigmatized practice of finding a spouse online may not be as depressing as it sounds.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
27 January 2016, 3:55pm may be the saddest-sounding URL on the internet. The site is operated by A Foreign Affair, the self-described "largest, most respected International Introduction and Singles Tour Company in the industry." Since 1995, it has organized 523 tours to Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America for men who have struck out in the American marriage market and foreign women who might just want to marry them.

Popular tour stops are Kiev, Odessa, Medellin, and Shenzhen. And included in the price of all trips are: bus transport, accommodation at a 4-star hotel, access to a translator, face-to-face introductions to potential brides, and a "Do It Yourself Fiancee Visa Package."

Surprisingly though, after talking with Marcia Zug, Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina, I'm not weeping into my keyboard as I click through the website's crummy thumbnails of "beautiful Latin ladies" and "exotic women" with "old world values of marriage and family."

In her upcoming book Buying a Bride (due out in June), Zug argues that despite presiding assumptions and widespread social stigma, we shouldn't see mail-order brides as victims of exploitative transactions.

Zug specializes in family and immigration law - mail-order marriage was a natural progression - and in Buying a Bride, she traces the phenomenon back to the settlers at Jamestown and the British women they called in to help colonize America. The motive for importing spouses (almost exclusively female) has, she's found, remained essentially the same since the 17th century: a better quality of life, for both halves of the marital equation.

"When I first proposed the book idea," Zug explains, "I had the assumption that modern mail-order marriage is bad for women and that it's always been bad. But history shows that it's frequently been empowering. Often, it's a rational choice." Then, as now, she argues, mail-order marriages allow women opportunities that may have been unavailable to them in their home countries. Rather than being demeaning, they can be liberating.

Take, for example, the "Surplus Women" movement. (That is really what it was and is still called.) In post-Industrial Revolution Britain, a rise in the number of educated women upset the country's gender dynamic, leaving an unprecedented number of women unable to find eligible husbands. To remedy this, English feminist groups joined forces with religious groups in Western Canada, to bring women to areas in which they were not only no longer "surplus" but also much needed and highly valued. "Feminists recognized that it was very harmful for women to live in a place where they were considered redundant," says Zug, "And you still have that today."

In 2016, in the US, gender parity has shifted so that, according to Zug, women are now "looking at the men they dated in high school and they no longer see them as marriage prospects; they are increasingly university-educated and successful and see these men as potential drains." When I ask Zug to profile the typical male user of a mail-order marriage service, she says he's "a working class, blue collar white male, in his 30s to 60s, with not necessarily the most desirable job but a certain level of income." (A 10-day tour of Thailand through A Social Affair costs $2,395.)

"One thing I find fascinating," she continues, "is that the men often end up dating the foreign versions of the women who are rejecting them at home. There's this stereotype that the men are looking for women to control and dominate. Yet so many of them enter relationships with much more successful women than them - doctors, scientists - and they're gravitating towards these women."

In a 2013 Law Review article about mail-order brides, Zug quotes art publicist Lera Loeb discussing her brokered marriage with her husband, Steve. "Most people never think of a 27-year-old career woman like me when they hear the words mail-order bride," says Loeb. "They imagine someone who doesn't speak English, who's been shipped in, like property [...] If someone associates me with those kinds of stereotypes, Steve and I both get upset, because it's degrading." As Zug says, "The idea that these men want a subservient wife isn't playing out."

Neither is the idea that the women signing up to international marriage brokering sites have any intention of being subservient. Zug read and watched countless interviews with prospective partners in mail-order marriages. "In the footage, the women typically state that they're not feminist," she says, "Yet, when you look at their interactions, that's not what's going on at all. The women talk about how they want to work and have equality, and the men are fine with that."

Clearly, not all American men have read Gloria Steinem, "but they may be considered feminist and enlightened compared to the men in the countries where the women are coming from," says Zug.

When mail-order brides arrive in the US, they are also afforded clear rights and legal status, making them inherently less vulnerable than many immigrant women with uncertain immigrant status. Brokering companies too, are subject to strict regulations designed to protect women. Companies are required, for example, to give extensive histories of the men who register with them before any commitments are made. Zug: "Wouldn't it be nice if all women got that?"

Still, the acquisition of foreign citizenship is also one of the main reasons that mail-order marriages have traditionally been so stigmatized. "It's the same immigrant story you see throughout history," says Zug, "people think their lives will be made better by immigration. And marrying is one way to come over here." But she hasn't found that US citizenship is the only motivation for most women entering brokered foreign marriages. "These women are not marrying men they have no interest in being married to. You do have to be married for two years to stay in the country - and that's a long time to fake it."

If American working-class men are increasingly being snubbed by socially ascendant American women, who are those women marrying? Are they expanding their dating pool abroad too? Are there... mail-order husbands? According to Zug, professional American women are, increasingly, not getting married. But yes, she says, there are mail-order husbands.

Just as, for centuries, women have used mail-order marriages as a gateway to better lives abroad, following the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US, men too are now using online marriage brokering sites to find husbands. For gay men in Russia, for example, where LGBTQ rights are all but non-existent, sites like Golden Boys represent an escape from persecution at home.

At the core of Zug's argument is a belief that, despite dramatic social shifts, marriage still matters in 2016. "Marriage helps you survive," she tells me. "Financially, yes - but statistics also show that if you're married you actually live longer. Certain researchers have said that being unmarried is one of the greatest risks a person can voluntarily subject themselves to. But for a lot of these people it's not voluntary, if they would like to get married but can't."

With the rise of the internet, it's becoming easier and more acceptable to look for love online. "It allows people to increase their potential dating pool," Zug says. "For some people that means increasing it beyond the borders of your country, and I don't see why that's a problem. It's freeing."


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Still via YouTube

Mail-Order Brides
buying a bride
marcia zug