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, had ordered a pretty bride from a foreign country.
When the bride arrived, 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 once she became a professor of family and immigration law at the University of South Carolina, she set out to expose the evil men who get their brides by mail. She delved into her research and 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,"
she argues that mail-order matrimony "can actually be a very good choice for certain people in certain situations." Yes, even for the women.
The book starts at the very dawn of mail-order love: Jamestown, Virginia, circa 1600, when women were lured to our inhospitable shores with the promise of a prepaid dowry. For young women toiling as servants just to save up enough to marry, the offer was liberating. About 140 came over. They got to choose their husbands and seem to have been treated quite well. In fact, local laws were written to keep them happy. For instance, they could 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. As much as they needed wives, some women back east needed husbands, like the gal who placed this ad in a Missouri paper in 1910:
"Attractive women, 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 if you fast-forward again to the current day, the same still holds.
Today, American men seeking brides can go online and meet prospects as easily as computer dating. Most of the women live in Asia or Eastern Europe. And while it feels like a terrible imbalance — seemingly any schlub with U.S. citizenship can attract a desperate catch from overseas — what's really happening is a better marriage market for everyone.
"The women come from countries where their prospects are not great," says Zug. Some live where they're not allowed to pursue a career, or a divorce. Some are "too old" — at 25. The men here "are often much more attractive to them than the men they see in their countries," says Zug.
For their part, the men are not allowed to marry women sight unseen. Legally, they must meet at least once before they marry, so the mail-order sites organize trips to meet the prospects.
Once in America, says Zug, 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 to college!"
And unlike the GQ article, many of these couples live happily ever after — maybe even happier than most. Everyone likes to get a surprise in the mail.