To Western culture mail order brides are a foreign concept involving a contracted, loveless marriage, which reinforces male dominance over women. As I spoke about in a previous post, this is a common way for Western culture to view other cultures, because the term Feminism has inherently become a Western women’s term. In this essay I will further this discussion of Western views upon Eastern women in the specific context of mail order brides. Mail order marriages are believed to be abusive relationships, that take advantage of foreign women who believe America promises them a better life. The question is, at what point can you intervene in someone’s life choices and say there are wrong. Some argue that mail order brides are part of women’s empowerment, while others see it as the world reverting back to sexism. Marriage always tends to be a topic that people always have opinions on, and when the touchy term feminism is brought into the debate even more opinions come out of the woodwork. In this post I am going to explore the conceptions surrounding mail order brides from both Western and foreign perspectives, and will try to make sense of this foreign topic (literally).
Before taking a class on Eastern European feminism at the University of Michigan, I had no information on the subject except for cultural stereotypes. Some of the preconceived notions I had were that these relationships are exploitative; men are taking advantage of women who believe that America would provide them with a better life, and making it seem as though women are something you can put in your online shopping cart. There’s also a belief that these relationships are often abusive and that the women involved may be tricked into joining a trafficking ring. There are definitely assumptions about the type of people who are involved in these types of arrangements, for both the men and the women. For the women, they are believed to be slutty women who are exploiting their body and foreign looks in order to receive money from a foreigner. For the men, they are perceived to be low-lifes who cannot find a women in America, which there is no lack of, so therefore something is wrong for them. In my view there is definitely more negative stigmas surrounding the males, because they can be seen as extremely sexist for their desire to “buy” a woman, have her take care of his home and children, and perform for him sexually. These extreme views make the whole culture of mail order brides seem like a sex slave type of program, which is incredibly different from traditional views of Western romance.
There are many romantic assumptions within our Western culture that are inherently unspoken. We expect a couple to have met before, speak the same language, and have little to no financial transactions involved. According to Marcia Zug, a professor at USC, in her journal article Mail Order Feminism, “in America, marriage is a choice. If you are married, it means someone thinks you are worth marrying” (156). This assumption is part of the reason why men seeking these mail order brides are looked down upon, because numerically there has to be a woman for him in the US. Therefore, it is important to ask why these things are occurring–from both a male and female perspective. For the men, as women have become more equal in Western society, they have relied less on marriage for their social standing and have gravitated more towards a successful career. Zug’s essay describes the education gap that is occurring between men and women in the US, and how it is leaving less educated men with further marriage prospects. This is not to say that it is dumb men who are going elsewhere to find women, but it shows how feminism is affecting the gender roles within our society. These men claim to be seeking a woman who will take care of their home and children. While that can be presumed to be sexist, it is the assumption that anything regarding women in the home is sexist, which is making these men look for a foreign wife in the first place. The men are seeking a woman to take care of their house and children and in Russia there is a matriarchal culture where the home is proudly the women’s domain. Because these men’s desires match with the Russian martial views, it is not a wild assumption that these two types of people may come together. Besides the matriarchal culture which makes these Russian women good potential brides, they themselves are gaining from this marriage.
The foreign women who are joining these sites to become a mail order bride have their reasons for joining. Erica Johnson, an ethnologist who published a book on Russian women seeking Western husbands, discusses the process with one young potential mail order bride named Olga. Olga claimed, “everyone knows life in America is better. Even poor people have cares, houses, and televisions. The most wonderful thing about America is the men. They’re more handsome and they don’t treat you like a slave” (Johnson, 181). From this quote we are understanding multiple different perspectives of these foreign brides. They are seeking a better life in America; she mentions that even poor people are poor, which represents the foreign perspective of the American dream. Part of this better life stems from the protective laws for women within the US government. The US congress amended a “The Violence Against Women Act” in order to permit abused, immigrant spouses to self-petition for permanent residency (Zug, 167). This type of protection is important because it establishes that immigrant spouses have rights within the US and that they are not obliged to stay in an abusive relationship, regardless of if it is a mail order marriage or not. Brides are also entitled to a criminal background history of their spouse, which allows them to have some power in knowing their fiance’s history (Zug, 169). Why do all of these things come together to create a better life than of a life is Russia? It is important to look at Russian men and how these women interact with them and their relationship roles.
The matriarchal society within Russia not only affects how the women act within Russia, but how the men act as well. The matriarch makes the women in the families assume specific roles, such as cooking and cleaning. According to Harvey Balzer, a director of Georgetown University’s Russia Area program noted, “Russian women are tired of domestic dictators. Even the (Russian) men I know who write about women’s rights wouldn’t get up from the dinner table to help clear the dishes” (Zug, 172). She further illustrates how Russian men fail to uphold the traditional ideals of a marriage and have lost their sense of responsibility for their wives and children. This is where there are faults within the mail order bride process, because these women are seeking men who will look at them as more than a maid, but the American men also placed immense emphasis on women as homemaker and mothers. Perhaps they claim to have a better respect for women, but that is something that cannot be proven and is speculative.
The assumptions of why these foreign women and Western men partake in these mail order marriages are inherently negative, mainly due to the feminist views within the Western world and how they impose those ideas on foreign cultures. Two feminists Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman discuss this disparity in their essay “Have We Got a Theory for You.” They introduce the theory of intersectionality, which addresses the different qualities a woman may possess that make up her identity, including race, gender, class, ability, or ethnicity (Oxford, online). Lugones and Spelman discuss feminism’s lack of diversity and make it clear that intersectionality needs to have a broader impact on the voice of feminism. They address that white/Anglo women are speaking as the main voice of feminism, and that other minority voices are not holding the same weight as a white woman’s voice. In Johnson’s reading, Olga discusses the Russian view of Western feminists and how they are viewed as hostile lesbians. It was a very politically incorrect view, and showed how much of a gap there is between the two cultures. This is definitely what makes this entire process so foreign (literally) to Western culture, because we view it as anti-feminist, but Russian women see it as them choosing their own life.
Johnson, Ericka. Dreaming of a Mail-order Husband: Russian-American Internet Romance. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.
Lugones, Marcia C. and Elizabeth V. Spelman Have we got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for “The Woman’s Voice.” Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy. Wadsworth Publishing Company: California. 1986.
Zug, Marcia. “Mail Order Feminism.” Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 21 (2014): 153.