Wise-Suseman Prize Winner – Kathryn Vaggalis

Each year at the ASA annual conference, award winners are announced for several prizes.*  This year’s Wise-Susman Prize Winner, Kathryn Vaggalis, kindly agreed to an interview with American Studies journal.

Vaggalis Bio Pic                                                  Picture3
PhD candidate Kathryn Vaggalis,                          Calliope Vaggalis, Kathryn’s grandmother
winner of the ASA 2018 Wise-Susman Prize

Vaggalis is a PhD Candidate in the American Studies department at the University of Kansas where she is also the Managing Editor of Women, Gender, and Families of Color.  Her paper “Off-White Brides and Their Lonely Swains: Cross-cultural Histories of Immigrant Picture Brides and the Process of U.S. Race Making” is part of her dissertation research.

How did you first become interested in Picture Brides?  

After reading Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Issei, Nisei, War Bride. I was fascinated by the way Glenn presented the intergenerational histories of Japanese American women. One aspect of the Issei (first) generation migrants that particularly resonated with me were the “picture bride” women who came to the United States from about 1907-1921.  After anti-immigrant fervor surged in the U.S. West, the United States and Japan entered into the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement curtailing Japanese migration to America. The informal “law” did however allow for family reunification. The picture bride system was born out of this loophole and women and men in arranged marriages (a centuries’ old practice) performed marriage ceremonies back home by proxy rather than in person so that women could legally enter the United States as wives (rather than prohibited single women). Couples exchanged photographs and often carried them to immigration stations to help identify their partners (thus the colloquial name, picture bride).

Japanese Picture Brides, Angel Island 1919
Japanese Picture Brides at Angel Island in 1919, public domain

By the 1910s, the “Jap picture bride” became a popular symbolic trope representing the demise of white America and Christian democracy, brought on by the proliferation of Japanese families. By 1920 anti-Japanese sentiment had risen to such an extent that the Japanese government (to protect its people and address the increasing pressure from the U.S. government) agreed to stop issuing passports to picture bride women, effectively ending the process by the following year.

But this is only half of the picture bride story. Though picture marriage has become synonymous with Japanese immigration history, the practice was far from unique; it was common in many immigrant groups coming to the United States around the turn of the twentieth century, including Koreans, Chinese, Italians, Armenians, Germans, and most prevalently, Greeks. Though history books seem to have forgotten about these other brides, American newspapers of the time throughout the country wrote articles comparing the different groups, reporting on their incoming numbers, and writing about their seemingly “strange” cultural practices.

Greek Picture Brides, 1921
These young women came from Greece to America as picture brides in 1921.
Courtesy of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island,
National Park Service, photo STLI 24332. Public Domain

The reason I personally resonated so much with the history of picture brides, is because I have Greek picture brides in my own family line and they are very much a quintessential part of our family’s American story. And unlike Japanese picture marriage that dissolved in the 1920s, this history is traced throughout the twentieth century. My father’s mother, Calliope, for example, was a picture bride who came to America as late as 1949 after World War II and the Greek Civil War devastated her homeland. In Athens, a friend of Calliope’s suggested she write to the friend’s cousin, Vasilios, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Calliope and Vasilios exchanged letters, and in December 1949, she flew to New York City, met my grandfather for the first time, and married him shortly thereafter.

Overshot woven blanket is actually one that my great-grandma Anastasia made in 1915 as part of her wedding dowry (she spun and dyed the wool and used a loom to weave it). It was one of the only things my grandmother Calliope brought in her suitcase when she came to the U.S. in 1959.


In 1949, the local Nebraska newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star headlined the marriage an “airmail romance” and featured a story about the wedding ceremony and the “brown-eyed beaming bride.” The Journal Star hailed the marriage as a conquering love story of the ages. In a flourish of Cold-War kitsch, the article ends with the couple’s future plans; via the translator, when asked about a honeymoon, she supposedly replied, “America is enough honeymoon.” The article, which I have read so many times over the years, echoes in my mind as I produce my work. Though my grandmother had a hard life, the public reaction to her marriage and reproductive choices were so different than what Japanese American women faced in the early twentieth century. Life was no honeymoon for either group, but my family, as Greek Americans, experienced a relative degree of racial privilege which separated out their history—both in academia and the popular imagination—from those Japanese women who fought so hard for themselves and their families.

What is your process for creating articles that are also part of your dissertation research?  In other words, how do you craft a shorter topic out of the larger project?

I am a visual learner. I have literally printed out chapters of my dissertation and used scissors to cut it up paragraph-by-paragraph (or by argument, main idea, or object of evidence) and rearranged it on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle. I also think annotations are a writer’s best friend. Writing a skeleton outline of a paper, then fleshing it out with detail helps bulk up a paper. Similarly, when I start to write and lose direction, I will draw a sort of map for myself. I will annotate paragraph by paragraph what I am saying in a sentence or less to keep myself on track. In turn, annotation is key to crafting a shorter topic out of a larger project. I simply gather those annotations together in one place and streamline in order to focus my work.

Did you experience of working on a journal staff help with your own research?

I was an English major in college, and I am convinced editorial experience of any kind makes one a better writer. Beyond punctuation or citation styles, I have learned over the years how to formulate an argument, articulate my evidence, and make connections to the broader scholarship or field.

I am currently managing editor of Women, Gender, and Families of Color, a multidisciplinary journal that centers the study of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian American women, gender, and families. I have been inspired by the journal’s commitment to social justice, equity in academic research, and the diverse and brilliant spectrum of authors and board members that I get the privilege of working with. The scholarship and integrity of these individuals pushes me to center social justice, equitable representation, and migrant agency in my histories. (To learn more about the journal, or submit work of your own, visit: www.wgfc.ku.edu)

How do you incorporate your research into your teaching practice?

My work has inspired me to integrate immigration as a key unit in my American studies classes. Not only does this content confront the myth of a “nation of immigrants”—after all, there were people on the American continent long before European or forced migrations—but it explicitly demonstrates the ways that race, gender, and sexuality have always played a role in U.S. immigration experiences. It reinforces the course’s interdisciplinary, intersectional approaches, and ties the historical to the current moment.

I bring in works from David Roediger, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Mae Ngai, and Daniel Rogers.  As a class, we confront the myth of a golden era of immigration. Students of Irish, Greek, or Italian heritage, for example, are surprised at the hardships their peoples faced when coming to the United States. Race was conceptualized differently than today. Gradations existed, and it was possible to be “off-white”—white enough to enter the country, but not white enough to experience the full benefits of Anglo status. But a critical look at the construction of whiteness demonstrates that many “off-white” groups—whose descendants and popular culture romanticize their boot strap successes—were culpable in the further degradation of other ethnic groups in their rise up the American social ladder.

The history of picture brides is a unique demonstration of this trend. Comparing the disparate experiences of its practitioners provides an exceptional lens to trace the ways white, middle-class sexuality became institutionalized in early immigration law and nationalist discourses of citizenship and social belonging. In my work, I argue that far from being a mere footnote in Greek American history, picture brides were essential to the process by which Greek Americans navigated their racial position from “in-between” white Other to ethnic white American.

Greeks, though white enough to enter the country, were considered “in-between” or “probationary” whites.  Depictions of Greek picture marriage in papers demonstrated this liminal position; it was simultaneously different and potentially threatening, but seemingly less so in comparison to its Japanese practitioners. In popular English-language newspapers and American political discourse picture marriage was rooted in Orientalist assumptions of non-white, deviant sexuality. As off-white, Greeks’ racial categorization left much speculation as to their potential for American physical or cultural assimilation. As Madison Grant famously wrote, the Mediterranean race was “so far from being purely European, it is equally African and Asiatic.”

Positioned as different from Japanese or Asian women—though how different was up for debate—Greek women were nebulously in-between racial and social categories. Their portrayal as “picture brides” inherently connected them to Asian Americans and was presented as evidence of the “Asiatic” roots of the Southern Mediterranean race. But rather than dismantle the system that degraded them, Greeks argued for their inclusion by separating themselves away from other ethnic groups. As one Greek consulate told the New York Times in 1922, “You must differentiate between the classes of so-called picture brides.” Greeks vociferously bragged about their adherence to white middle-class gender roles; unlike Japanese women who often worked in agriculture alongside their husbands and families, Greek women rarely worked outside the home. Greek officials stressed that Greek marriages and families were proof of citizen loyalty, virtue, and commitment to America. But in wielding the discourse of white heteronormativity to claim political legitimacy, Greeks’ political efforts worked to bolster white heterosexist supremacy rather than dismantling it. Greeks’ acceptance into popular notions of whiteness and citizenship was predicated on the exclusion of others. Put simply, Greek picture marriage was marginally acceptable because they had a non-white counterpart seemingly more “foreign” to American minds than themselves.


Many thanks to Kathryn Vaggalis for sharing with us so much about her current research and graduate teaching practice.  Graduate students are so much more than “students.”  They are not only the up-coming scholars in the field of American Studies, they also have an enormous impact on undergraduates in many different fields and future professions.

* If you or anyone you know is interested in seeing other prize winners OR submitting a paper:  https://www.theasa.net/awards

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