Marcia A. Zug is the author of the new book Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches. She is associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Yale Law Journal and the UC Davis Law Review.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what do you see as the most common perceptions and misperceptions about these "mail-order matches"?
A: I wrote the book because it’s at the intersection of my two areas of interest, which I’ve been interested in for a long time—I teach family law and immigration law. This is one of the areas that hits both perfectly. I thought about writing it for a while. There was so much, it wasn’t hard to turn it into a book.
The common view of mail-order brides is that they’re desperate, exploited women, that it’s a horrible practice, and we should work hard to reduce it. That was my perception when I went into it.
One difference is that I recognized there was another view of mail-order brides, and I wondered why we had both, why it was [seen as] good before.
I found that the benefits in the past were real, and a lot were the same as modern mail-order brides receive—that as long as there are protections and regulations, this is a really good option for certain [women].
Q: So what do you see as those benefits?
A: The main benefit is that it increases your options. Throughout history, anything that increases women’s options is good. It allows you to leave a place where your options are limited and move to a place where you have more opportunities.
It enabled women to move from places where they were not valued highly to places where they were treated quite well. It was an opportunity to leave a place where they were considered surplus and go to a place where they were throwing parties when you arrived and paying good wages.
In the countries they were coming from, their lives were not good—not just on a personal level, but frequently they were in countries where they don’t respect women. Marriage puts you in the front of the immigration line. It changes your calculations on whether you can move.
Q: You note that the perception of mail-order marriages changed at a certain point in American history. What caused that change?
A: The race of the brides. At the beginning, women were coming over from Britain or France, or white women from the Eastern U.S. were moving West.
It was when the majority of mail-order brides started shifting to non-white women, to groups the immigration laws were trying to keep out. Americans were working to keep them out of America…the mail-order marriage loophole [was perceived as] people flouting the immigration law. It was a loophole that wasn’t supposed to be there. It first happened with Asian mail-order brides, and those of Southern or Eastern European descent.
Q: So when did it change exactly?
A: It was after the Civil War, around the 1880s, when you started getting the Chinese Exclusion Act. Starting with the Gold Rush, there was a push for Chinese immigration to help build the railroads, and once the push dried up, the white men out West didn’t want [competition].
So you don’t allow [Chinese men] to get married and have families—it made life here a lot less desirable. With the citizenship law, you had a court case saying that if someone is born here they are a citizen—those would be Asian-American citizens with voting rights.
Q: In the book, you write that the term “mail-order bride” is divisive. What are some of the arguments on either side, and what is your opinion?
A: The reason it’s disliked is it conjures up an image of buying women and the lack of agency there. I don’t disagree with that concern. The reason I use it in the book is that I want to show women have a lot of agency, and I want to confront it head-on.
Men are not buying these women. The women are choosing to do this. They often left the men [if they didn’t like them].
When I define mail-order marriage, I’m pretty specific. I don’t consider arranged marriages to be mail-order marriages.
And most importantly, trafficking. A mail-order bride is someone who chooses to do this, not someone who thinks they’re going for a job and ends up tricked into prostitution. A lot of people lump it together.
Q: What do you see looking ahead for this type of relationship?
A: I expect it to continue. With the internet, there’s incredible [access to] online dating in general, and it’s made mail-order marriage easier. You can meet more people.
You’re seeing growth in the services doing this. Online dating is more acceptable. It increases people’s comfort level in doing it for marriage as well.
As long as the immigration laws privilege family reunification over skills-based [qualifications, it will continue]—it would disappear if it didn’t have that benefit.
It will start expanding with same-sex mail-order marriages, with the possibility gay American men will do this as well. There are lots of countries where it’s as bad to be gay as to be a woman. There’s a strong incentive for leaving these countries as well.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: I’m in the very early stages…I’m writing about how American-foreign marriages are used for various benefits, and the perception of them.
We are more receptive to foreign brides than to foreign husbands. There’s the idea of foreign men being less assimilable, more dangerous, more likely to be terrorists. American women who marry foreign men and leave America are often considered traitors.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: …One of the things people sometimes ask me is why should we care? They view these men as jerks—if they can’t get married, it’s their own fault. In America, marriage is so important; we put a lot on marriage. If you’re someone who wants to get married and can’t because everyone’s rejecting you, it is dangerous…
If marriage is the way we pull people into the middle class, making it easier to get married is a benefit not just for the couple, but for the country in general.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb