Do Mail-Order Brides Make "Good Wives?"

By now most of us have seen the 1950’s "The Good Wife's Guide"—the one that tells women that a "Good Wife" is one who acknowledges her husband as master of the house and never questions his authority. The guide is probably a fake that was intended to mock the household dynamics of the post-war generation by imagining a (fictional) era of submissive wives. Did you know, though, that in recent years "The Good Wife's Guide" has taken on a whole new purpose? It is being used as a manifesto for international marriage brokers aiming to convince American men that they deserve obedient wives and that the (again, fictional) 1950s wife can be found in a foreign country.

It must be working. Each year international marriage brokers assist with the importation of tens of thousands of foreign spouses and fiancées into the U.S. It’s big business too; the more than 500 brokers generate an estimated 34 million dollars in revenue from hopeful grooms.

The market size is not why it is an interesting economic problem—not to me at least.

Economists are interested in intra-household bargaining—the way that couples decide how resources are allocated within the household. For example, how much time each individual dedicates to paid labor is usually determined through intra-household bargaining. The decision about how many children will be born, and the share of household resources allocated to children, is also determined though intra-household bargaining. Intra-household bargaining determines the division of household chores and time each parent spends on child-rearing. Finally, but importantly, bargaining determines whether or not a couple is having sex and what sex acts are performed.

In other words, most of the decisions that will ultimately determine the welfare of everyone within the household are made through household bargaining.

On the surface, at least, international marriage brokers promote the idea that the advantage of a foreign wife, as opposed to a domestic wife, is that the husband will hold the balance of household decision making power. They sell the idea that foreign brides come from societies in which the social norm is one of male dominance and, as a result, are more willing to accept that arrangement.  Don’t take my word for it, consider the following quote from the marriage broker web site www.goodwife.com:

We, as men, are more and more wanting to step back from the types of women we meet now. With many women taking on the "me first" feminist agenda and the man continuing to take a back seat to her desire for power and control many men are turned off by this and look back to having a more traditional woman as our partner.

They also, perhaps less explicitly, promote the notion that women from economically disadvantaged countries will be more grateful for the privileges their western husband can provide and, as a result, be less likely to make demands on his resources.

Do foreign-born wives arrive with any of these expectations? Probably not. In fact, many are sold on the idea that a western husband means more opportunities for decision making within the household—not less. If this is true, then both parties enter the marriage with very different ideas as to how the power within the household will be allocated. I don’t doubt that when two people marry who having very different ideas of how decisions will be made, that conflict is created. It is perhaps that conflict that is contributing to the high level of abuse documented in these relationships.*

Despite a vast economic literature on household bargaining and well-being, there has been nothing done, to my knowledge, on bargaining within households in which the wife is a mail-order bride. If that changes—which I hope it does—you can be certain that I will let you know.

*Kim, Jane (2011). “Trafficked: Domestic Violence, Exploitation in Marriage, and the Foreign-Bride Industry.” Virginia Journal of International Law Vol 51(2): p 443

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