The term “Mail Order Bride” originated on the American frontier in the 19th century. At that time, the number of men on the frontier far outnumbered the number of available women, and lonely farmers and ranchers would seek wives from “Back East” by placing ads in newspapers and magazines. Interested women would write back and send photographs, and the couple did not usually meet in person until the woman showed up for her wedding to a man whom she had never actually met face-to-face.
Although we tend to talk about mail order brides in the past tense in the same way we discuss the Pony Express, Fort Apache, and other assorted “Old West” icons, the mail order bride industry is alive and well in the 21st century.
Nowadays, as you might expect, the entire enterprise takes place in cyberspace.
Mail order brides are women who are explicitly looking for a husband and advertise themselves through international marriage agencies that publicize their availability. These agencies have names such as AnastasiaDate.com, Loveme.com, Russianbrides.com, and Globalladies.com.
What distinguishes mail order brides from other mate-seeking women is that they are trying to expand their pool of eligible mates across national borders, and they do so in a way that preserves freedom of choice that would be greatly diminished if they were to employ more traditional matchmakers.
Most mail order brides now come from Southeast Asia (especially Thailand and the Philippines), Latin America (often Colombia and Brazil), and Russia and Ukraine. The prospective husbands they seek come primarily from the United States or Western Europe, although there is a market for foreign brides in South Korea and Japan as well.
Mail order brides are drawn from throughout the social spectra of their respective societies. They include comfortable middle-class women who perceive a shortage of suitable mates in their own countries as well as extremely poor women who are attempting to escape intolerable lives. In either case, as Ara Wilson (1998, p. 117) has observed, the photographs of these women that are placed on an agency’s website are in some sense “passport photos for foreign eyes and a ticket out of Southeast Asia” or wherever else from which they might hail.
Another factor that may influence a woman to seek a husband as a mail order bride is family pressure, especially when she has already reached an age by which she is supposed to have been married. This pressure to escape the social stigma attached to single women in Korea as a primary motive for Korean women’s emigration to Japan in search of a husband.
In 2006, I published two studies of the mating preferences of mail order brides from Colombia, Russia, and the Philippines with one of my students, Bibiana Paez (Minervini). Although the motives of women seeking Western husbands are often driven by economic concerns, this is not always the case. Bibiana conducted in-depth interviews with several “brides,” husbands of mail order brides, and the proprietor of a mail order bride agency in Colombia.
These interviews revealed that a wide range of factors play a role in the mail order mating strategy. When asked why American customers seek Latina women, the proprietor of the matchmaking service said that American men prefer Latina women as wives because they are believed to take better care of their husbands and are more tender, warm, and dedicated to their home than are American women. The matchmaker also reported that his American customers sought women who were younger than themselves and those who had stereotypically Latin features such as tan skin and long, dark hair.
Latina women, he believed, are interested in American men because they are thought to be more faithful, less jealous, and less chauvinistic than Latino men.
Our interviews captured the irony of situations in which women who were attempting to escape from traditional constraints were being matched with men who were attempting to find a wife whom they believed would embrace these very constraints. For example, an American man who married a mail order bride had this to say about family life:
The husband and wife are equal partners in the family structure, though not the same. Men and women are different in physical and mental abilities. I feel that the wife has her place in the family structure, such as giving more care to children, the house, and things of that nature. The husband should take care of income and things of that nature.
Similarly, another former husband (age 65) of a mail order bride stated that he felt that American women, “were too interested in what I was worth [economically]. With women’s liberation in the USA, I had them calling me, coming to my house. Before, the man called the woman when he wanted to date her; the woman was not the initiator. Now is so different from what I grew up with, so I thought that the best thing to do was to meet someone that can’t just come to my house."
A woman now living in the United States explained her reasons for becoming a mail order bride:
I met men in Colombia, I was married, I had my experience. I decided to look for something different, try men from another culture that might be better than ours. American men are more serious; [they] worry and respect their wife.
Thus, the mail order bride business as it now operates may be in the perverse position of attempting to match independent, nontraditional women with very traditional Western men, a situation which frequently leads to dissatisfaction for both parties.
In our first study, we also surveyed a group of Colombian women who were attempting to become mail order brides, and we compared them with a group of Colombian women who were not pursuing a husband in this way. In addition to asking about their preferences for a husband, we also asked them what they thought men were looking for in a wife. The responses of the two groups to open-ended questions about mating were much more similar than different and the items relevant to what they wanted in a prospective husband were the ones that showed the least difference.
Both groups emphasized the importance of sexual fidelity and commitment as traits to look for in a mate as well as traits to advertise about one’s self.
These results line up nicely with the responses to a third question in which the women shared what they thought men sought in a wife, as they believed that these were the two most important qualities that men were after.
There was, however, a curious disconnect between what women wanted to advertise and what they believed that men wanted regarding social skills, especially for the mail order brides. Almost two–thirds of the mail order brides wished to communicate information about their personality and social skills to a prospective husband, yet only 27% of these women put these qualities on their list of things in which they thought men were interested.
In light of the considerable body of research demonstrating the importance males place on physical attractiveness, it is also interesting that the women in our study were unlikely to bring this up in response to any of our questions. Relatively few of them put it on their list of things that they thought were important to men and even fewer listed it as something that would be important to advertise. Whether these women are simply unaware of how important this is to men or whether their responses beg some other explanation is an interesting research question in itself.
In a second study, we also found a high degree of agreement among mail order brides from Russia, Colombia, and the Philippines. Across the board, we found a preoccupation with the very same characteristics (e.g., ambition, commitment to a relationship and children, sexual fidelity, a mate that is somewhat older) that have been documented by evolutionary psychologists in a great many studies. In short, women willing to become mail order brides do not appear to have a different agenda than other mate-seeking women; they simply have discovered a novel way to expand their pool of prospective husbands.
I should not leave this topic without acknowledging a very dark side of the mail order bride business.
Women who travel to a far-off country to marry a stranger are putting themselves at great risk, and grim statistics confirm the danger. Many incidents of violence (including murder) against mail order brides have been well documented, especially in the United States and South Korea. It is not unreasonable to assume that awkward or sinister men are over-represented in the pool of males who choose to pursue mates from so far away, and women should proceed with great caution if they choose to explore mating opportunities in this fashion.