Years ago, when Marcia Zug read a GQ magazine article about mail-order brides, she was revolted. A high-flying New York City photographer, fed up with all the demanding models he was dating, wanted to find a subservient woman to make him happy. So he ordered a pretty bride from a foreign country.
When the bride got here, he found her annoying, too. So he sent her home — pregnant with his child — and went back to dating models.
Zug never forgot that piece. And even after she left her hometown of Manhattan to become a professor of family and immigration law at the University of South Carolina, she felt she had to expose the evil men who get their brides by mail. She delved into her research and guess what?
Now she’s married … to a very different narrative.
“I’m not suggesting that this is the marital path for everybody,” Zug said in a phone call. But in her new book, “Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches,” (NYU Press) she presents the opposite of the idea she went in with. Far from depressing and degrading, mail-order matrimony “can actually be a very good choice for certain people in certain situations.”
The book starts at the dawn of mail-order love: Jamestown, Virginia, circa 1600. Unlike New England, which was settled by families, Jamestown was settled by men. Conditions horrendous — one settler described it as “hell, a misery, a death” — and there weren’t any English-speaking women to not enjoy it with.
Some men hightailed it home, others married native American women and went to live in their comfier villages. In desperation, the Virginia Company decided to try attracting Englishwomen by paying their dowries. For young women toiling as servants just to save up enough to marry, the offer was liberating, and about 140 came over.
They got to choose their husbands and seem to have been treated quite well, thanks to the laws of supply and demand. Laws were written to keep them happy. They could, for instance, legally break an engagement — something they couldn’t do back in England.
Fast forward to the Western frontier a couple hundred years later when, once again, American men were heading out and women weren’t. As much as these men needed wives, some women back East needed husbands. These included women appalled by the local prospects, like the gal who placed this ad in a Missouri paper in 1910:
“Attractive woman, not a day over thirty, would be pleased to correspond with eligible man. Would prefer one with property, but one with a good paying position would be satisfactory. The young lady is of medium height, has brown hair and gray eyes, not fat, although, most decidedly, she is not skinny. Her friends say she is a fine-looking woman. Object matrimony. Reason for this advertisement, the young woman lives in a little dinky town, where the best catches are the boys behind the counters in the dry goods and clothing stores, and every one of ’em is spoken for by the time he is out of his short pants.”
Gosh, I’d marry her — what spunk. Zug found little evidence of exploitation or mistreatment of these brides. And today, the same holds true.
Americans seeking brides can easily go online to meet prospects. Most of the women live in Asia or Eastern Europe. And while it seems like a terrible imbalance — any schlub with U.S. citizenship can attract a desperate catch — it is a better marriage market for everyone.
“The women come from countries where their prospects are not great,” Zug said. Some live where they’re not allowed to pursue a career. Some live where they are worthless if divorced, widowed, already have children, or are simply too old — perhaps 25. They look to America, and the path to get here is marriage.
“These men are often much more attractive to them than the men they see in their countries,” she said.
The men are not allowed to marry women sight unseen. Legally they must meet at least once before they marry, and the mail-order sites organize trips to get the prospects together.
Once here, Zug said, the brides not only have far rosier prospects than back home, they often make the men shape up, too. As in “I’m learning a whole new language. Go get your GED!”
And unlike the GQ article, many of these couples live happily ever after — maybe even happier than most, since everyone likes to get a surprise in the mail.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.