The history of the mail-order bride stretches back centuries in world history, with many examples in U.S. history. In the early eighteenth century, Louis XV sent women from France to settle in the New Orleans area, to serve as companions for the men who had already settled there. They were called casket brides, referring to the single trunk of goods each woman was allowed to bring with her. American men living in the West in the nineteenth century would write to family on the East Coast, requesting assistance to find them a bride. In the early twentieth century Japanese settlers in the United States and Canada were introduced to prospective brides—picture brides—through photographs sent through the mail. Through the middle of the twentieth century, marriage agencies would help men find women through the publication of catalogs containing descriptions of potential brides. Men would initiate correspondence with women of interest.
In the 1990s, the mail-order-bride industry changed drastically. The paper catalogs and pen and paper correspondence were supplanted by the Internet and electronic mail. By the late 1990s the U.S. Department of Immigration estimated that there were 100,000 women advertising their availability as foreign brides on hundreds of web sites in the United States (Scholes and Phataralaoha 2006). By the 1990s the term mail-order bride had negative connotations; many in U.S. society condemn both men and women who engage in the practice.
Most often women listed on marriage web sites live in economically underdeveloped or newly developed countries in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe (especially Russia and Ukraine), and to a lesser extent, Latin America and South America. The men who seek foreign brides typically reside in the economically developed world—Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia. In 1995 more than 19,000 Japanese men married women from Korea, the Philippines, China, Brazil, and Peru. In 1998, of the 202 Internet marriage broker sites, more than one-quarter featured Asian women, more than one-quarter featured women from Latin America or women of multiple ethnicities, and just a little under one-half featured women from the former Soviet Union (especially Russia and Ukraine). Among the Asian women listed on the sites, more than 70 percent were from the Philippines (Scholes and Phataralaoha 2006).
Most often, women seek these international arrangements as a means to overcome the socioeconomic limitations in their country. And most men seek women who are the embodiment of the traditional wife: attentive in terms of affection and content with the role of housewife and mother. Men believe these women to be untainted by European and North American feminist ideas of equality, uninterested in careers, and focused on the home. The men may perceive themselves as rescuers of women in need. Whereas these beliefs may underpin the actions of men and women involved in the mail-order-bride industry, the reality can be entirely different—the men may not be economically secure and the women may have interests outside of the household.
International marriage agencies that operate on the Internet provide photographs of potential brides. The focus is on women's physical appearance and age rather than their personalities or interests. In addition the agencies sponsor tours that allow interested men the opportunity to travel overseas to meet a large number of eligible women in person.
There are examples of abuse on both sides of this issue. Women have utilized Internet marriage services to exploit the desires of men, fraudulently receiving money in advance of a potential marriage that never materializes. Men, from their position of power and control in the relationship, have abused their brides. There are examples of physical abuse, in some cases resulting in homicide. Some women who immigrated to marry Americans were reluctant to press charges of domestic violence against their husbands, fearing divorce and deportation. As a result, the United States now has mechanisms in place to deter this. Immigration laws allow a woman to remain in the United States if she divorces her husband due to domestic violence. However, because of language or cultural barriers, some women may not be aware of these legal protections.
Critics of mail-order-bride arrangements view the practice as an example of women treated as commodities in the international arena—moved across national borders for the pleasure of men. Brides are brought to a new country with the promise of economic support by their intended spouses. In exchange women provide sexual and domestic services. Thus mail-order brides are part of the continuum of trafficking in women, along with sex tourism, the international migration of women for labor, and the forced migration of women across national borders to be sold into sexual slavery. Many argue that men hold an inordinate amount of power in these relationships—that in addition to men's economic dependence, cultural and language barriers also make foreign wives dependent on their husbands. Proponents of these international arrangements argue that they fulfill a need by providing an opportunity for men to find traditional spouses while offering women a chance to improve their socioeconomic circumstances.
Constable, Nicole. 2003. Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography, and "Mail Order" Marriages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Goldiva, Mila, and Richard Onizuka. 1994. Mail-Order Brides: Women for Sale. Fort Collins, CO: Alaken.
Scholes, Robert J., and Anchalee Phataralaoha, "The 'Mail-Order Bride' Industry and its Impact on U.S. Immigration." U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Available from http://www.uscis.gov/graphics/aboutus/repsstudies/Mobappa.htm. Revised January 20, 2006.
Julie L. Thomas