How Many Mail-Order Brides?
Immigration Review #28
"Heaven is having a Japanese wife, a Chinese
cook, a British country home and an American salary. Hell, on the
other hand, is having a Chinese salary, a British cook, a Japanese
house and an American wife."
— Gary Clark, An Introduction to the "Penpal
Bride" or so-called "Mail Order Bride" Movement,
Copyright © 1995, available on line:
While there is little demand among foreign men for
American wives, there is a huge demand for American husbands. Thousands
of foreign women are seeking husbands in the international bride market.
Most of these women seem to prefer an American man if they can find
one. American men are highly sought after because, compared with (what
these women know about) the men in most countries, American men simply
make better husbands.
At any one time, there are approximately 90 agencies
offering the names, addresses, pictures, and short biographies of
around 25,000 women who are looking for husbands. The women listed
by these services are predominantly Filipino or Russian, but entries
may be found from nearly every country of the world. Most of these
agencies update their listings quarterly (some more often, some less),
indicating that the annual number of women available as "mail-order
brides" is in the neighborhood of 100,000.
According to the agencies themselves (in written replies
to a 1996 questionnaire from the author) approximately 10 percent
of these women are successful — they find and marry a man through
the service. There are, then, around 10,000 marriages a year between
women listed by these agencies and men who use the service; i.e.,
10,000 mail-order marriages a year.
Of these 10,000, around 4,000 involve U.S. men. The
remainder is distributed among Canadian, Australian, European and,
increasingly, Japanese clients.
Who Are They?
An analysis of the listings in recent issues of five
popular catalogs featuring 1,400 Asian women found that 70 percent
were Filipino (despite the fact that Republic act No. 6955 makes such
listings illegal), many of whom are "in-service" as domestic
workers in other countries, 16 percent Indonesian, 8 percent Thai,
2 percent Malaysian and Japanese, and 1 percent Chinese and Korean.
In terms of age, 20 percent are 16-20 years of age, 41 percent are
21-25, 24 percent are 26-30, 11 percent 31-35, and just 4 percent
over the age of 35.
According to a report from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas
(see "Data from Filipino women and intermarriages" by Catherine
Paredes-Maceda in Asian Migrant 8.4, 1995), mail-order brides
constitute 10 percent of the marriages between Filipinos and foreign
nationals. Between 1989 and 1994, 95,000 Filipino men and women were
engaged to be married to foreigners, the great majority of whom met
their partners through work or personal introductions. Of the foreign
men who marry Filipinos, 44 percent are U.S. citizens.
On the basis of these data, it would appear that about
2,000 Filipino women find husbands each year through the agencies,
800 of whom marry Americans.
Based on published material from the agencies, similar
numbers apply to women from Russia, Latin America, and other areas;
i.e., 10 percent find husbands, of whom 40 to 50 percent are U.S.
Again, based largely on data supplied by the agencies
themselves (along with the Commission on Filipinos Overseas report),
marriages arranged through the mail-order services would appear to
have a lower divorce rate than the nation as a whole, fully 80 percent
of these marriages having lasted over the years for which reports
The Reasons for Mail-Order Marriages
Why do foreign women want American husbands? Many sources suggest
that the women are searching for a "better life" in terms
of socio-economic factors — they do, for the most part, come
from places in which jobs and educational opportunities for women
are scarce and wages are low. However, when the women themselves are
asked this question, the answer generally indicates an attraction
to American men (they look like movie stars) and an aversion to native
men. Americans, they say, "make good husbands" while Filipino
(Thai / Indonesian / Russian / etc.) men do not. Americans are thought
to be faithful and kind to their wives, while the native men are cruel
and run around with other women. True or not, this is the perception.
Why do American men want foreign wives? Most of the personal reports
from American men who have married women through these agencies talk
about "traditional values." That is, that American women
are not content to be wives and mothers, but seek personal satisfaction
through their own careers and interests, while the foreign woman is
happy to be the homemaker and asks for nothing more than husband,
home, and family. Again, true or not, this is the perception.
I would like to suggest, however, other attractions to the "mail-order
bride." For one, these girls tend to be younger (by an average
of 15 years) than the man and slimmer and better-looking than most
of the American women the man might have access to. Further, it should
not be overlooked that there are few, if any, occasions where a man
might browse several hundred American women — all of whom anxiously awaiting his attentions — from
whom to select one or more candidates for his wife; and yet, that
is exactly what is offered by the agencies.
It is interesting to note that these views on native
and foreign men and women are not limited to the Occident — a
similar attitude exists in Taiwan. According to "Taiwan Moves
to Boost Women's Marriage Prospects" (The Associated Press, Aug.
30, 1996, by Annie Huang), many Taiwanese men prefer brides from other
Asian countries because they feel Taiwanese women — who tend
to be better educated and more affluent — expect too much from
their husbands. Due to this attitude, Taiwan has imposed a limit on
the number of brides from certain countries that can enter Taiwan
each year — 360 from Indonesia, 420 from Burma and 1,080 from
China. On the women's side, many of them are seeking Western men since,
they say, Taiwanese men want to marry only hard-working, obedient
drudges while Taiwanese women have discarded this traditional role
and are seeking equality and mutual respect in marriage.
Impact on the United States
Clearly, an annual figure of 4,000 to 5,000 new Americans arriving
via the "mail-order bride" route is a small figure compared to total
immigration of more than one million. Moreover, these newcomers, unlike
refugees and other immigrant groups who concentrate in specific urban
areas, tend to be dispersed over a wide geographic range, further
diminishing any impact they may have. Encounters International, for
example, reports that the 53 couples who have married during the agency's
three years of existence reside in 12 different states (none in California
or New York).
Compared to the 40,000 to 50,000 annual marriages between Americans
and foreign nationals where the couple met through other means (friends,
travel, military, workplace, etc.), the "mail-order bride" source
of new Americans is small. Nonetheless, this stream of women who would
not otherwise be able to enter the United States may create future
chain migration as they petition for parents or siblings. Also, the
perception that these women have succeeded in dramatically improving
their lives may encourage still more foreign women to seek this route
into the United States.
Robert Scholes is a professor of linguistics at the
University of Florida.