Picture brides (mail-order brides)This informal term refers to women who married single immigrant men they had never met but with whom they had exchanged photographs, usually through family intermediaries. Securing picture brides was most common among Japanese and Korean laborers in Hawaii during the early 20th century and was viewed as an extension of the traditional custom of arranged marriages. By the start of the 20th century, thousands of single laborers from Japan and Korea had become established in the United States, but with few single women from their home countries, family life was impossible. The costs of a return trip to Asia to marry was prohibitively expensive, so they used the picture-bride system instead. European immigrants sometimes sent for mailorder brides, as they were usually known in Europe, though with fewer immigration restrictions, there was less gender imbalance among Europeans. A variation of this practice developed in the 1990s, as women seeking escape from poverty and gender limitations in countries of Southeast Asia and eastern Europe advertised themselves through more than 200 matchmaking agencies for marriage to men from economically advanced, western nations.
The vast majority of Asian immigrants arriving in North America were single males, most hoping to earn enough money to return to their homeland and enjoy a better life. More often than not, they stayed, building a new life in America. With a rising tide of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States and Canada, however, and increasingly restrictive regulations in measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Chinese Immigration Act (1885), and the Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907), it became clear that the gender imbalance would not be redressed. Workers often turned to families or other matchmakers to help them arrange marriages in their home countries. The practice became especially prevalent after 1907, when a loophole in the Gentlemen’s Agreement provided that wives of Japanese immigrants were excluded from the new restrictions. As Japan formalized its protectorate of Korea after 1907, the labor immigration of Koreans that had begun in 1903 was curtailed, though families and Japanese marriage agents did arrange for about 1,100 Korean pictures brides to enter the United States before the Johnson-Reed Act halted the practice in 1924. Most Japanese and Korean picture brides immigrated to Hawaii, marrying men much older than themselves. They were often shocked to see husbands who looked nothing like their pictures, though most chose to stay rather than return to their previous circumstances.
With economic malaise characteristic of many former Soviet territories, by the late 1990s it is estimated that more than 150,000 women from these regions were using mailorder bride agencies to advertise themselves in an attempt to escape their economic and social circumstances. Western men who sought out wives in this way tended to be well-educated and generally prosperous but, based on recent evidence, felt threatened by the effects of greater gender equity in western countries. The exact number of these arranged marriages is uncertain but probably averaged around 5,000 annually throughout the 1990s, less than 6 percent of the total number of spouses entering the United States and Canada each year. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the great majority of women advertising in North America as potential brides came either from Southeast Asia or the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Although the divorce rate in mail-order marriages appears to be lower than in the population generally, the system is open to abuse by both spouses. A significant number of women clearly used the policy provisions of both the United States and Canada, permitting the naturalization of wives regardless of birth country, in order to bypass ordinary immigration restrictions. Before 1986, foreign spouses in the United States generally were granted permanent residency as a matter of course. Concern over fraudulent marriages led to passage of Immigration Marriage Fraud amendments (1986, 1990), requiring a two-year wait for conditional resident status for the alien spouse, after which both parties were required to petition the Immigration and Naturalization Service and to undergo personal interviews to determine that the marriage was legitimate. On the other hand, the rate of spousal abuse by men seeking more submissive wives seems to be higher than in the general population. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed a bill providing for a conditional residency waiver if the spouse could demonstrate that battering or extreme cruelty had led to the dissolution of a good-faith marriage. A series of highprofile murders in Washington State involving mail-order brides led to passage of Washington State Senate Bill 6412 (2002), requiring matchmaking businesses to provide a state background check and marital history upon request to prospective brides in their native language. Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Democrat and author of the bill, led discussions with members of the U.S. Congress during 2002 about the possibility of passing a similar measure at the federal level.