Saturday, August 13, 2016

Marcia A. Zug's "Buying a Bride"

Marcia A. Zug is Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches, and reported the following:
The top half of page 99 shows a watercolor of a fur trapper and his Indian bride. This picture depicts a loving marriage, but many 19th century portrayals of white/Indian relationships were far from complimentary. In fact, this watercolor is placed right after Canadian Bishop George Hills’s disapproving description of such unions:
Referring to the gold rush town of Douglas, Hills wrote, “almost every man in Douglas lives with an Indian women” and he described a particularly scandalous example in which the local constable and magistrate were both competing for the affections of the same Indian woman. According to Hills, this love triangle occurred after the magistrate sent the constable on a long distance errand and while he was gone, convinced the woman to come live with him. When the constable returned, he tried to woo her back, but he was unsuccessful and “eventually gave up.”
Christian ministers like Hills considered these relationships scandalous and immoral, and were determined to end them. However, this goal was impossible without creating an alternative. The proposed solution was mail-order brides.

In order to bring brides to the Canadian frontier, Hills and others convinced the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, to create the Columbia Emigration Society. This organization easily raised the money for the women’s immigration costs however, convincing single women to immigrate was far more difficult. Previous mail-order bride programs had demonstrated that it took more than free passage and an appeal to “moral duty” to convince women cross the Atlantic and marry a complete stranger. The most effective bridal programs were those that gave women economic and social incentives to immigrate.

The Columbia Emigration Society initially offered women few incentives, but this changed when they joined forces with the Female Middle Class Emigration Society. The FMCES wanted to help women combat the sexist and degrading way women were treated by English society and they believed marital immigration was the answer. In most cases, the FMCES’s predictions were correct, and the arriving brides benefited from mail-order marriage. Nevertheless, the Indian wives they displaced certainly did not.

Page 99 demonstrates that despite its many benefits, marital immigration was not good for all women. It also shows that the story of mail-order marriage cannot be told without understanding the practice’s complex racial history. Although the first mail order brides were lauded and praised, it was in large part because they helped displace native wives. Then, when the race of the arriving brides changed, these marriages were increasingly vilified. Modern critics of mail-order marriage claim to be female advocates, but it is important to consider whether this racist past influences their criticisms. Buying a Bride tells both sides of this complicated story.
Learn more about Buying a Bride at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue