There was a book that I wanted to write, during the nearly six years that I just spent in France, called "The Tyranny of Seduction."

I had become convinced that French women were on the Wrong Track -- obsessed with their looks, preoccupied by their men, mired in a perpetual game of kittenish femininity. They were willing participants, it seemed to me, in a culture that made a fetish of sexual difference, with women's part of diffe{acute}rence being a constellation of outdated ideas that sapped their brains and spirits and ultimately made them incapable of (indeed, unfit for) equality.

My sense of this was confirmed in large part by the French media. For that was an era of aggressive chest beating in France about men being men and women being women, all irresistibly attracted to one another. And in so being, they guaranteed a degree of social harmony that, the pundits said, was utterly lacking in the United States, where a virulent strain of feminism had turned women into wannabe men, effectively ruining relations between the sexes.

Even French feminists shared this view. "We want to keep the freedom to be seduced -- and to seduce," wrote the feminist philosopher (and wife of the French prime minister) Sylviane Agacinski, as she argued against the "politically correct" American model of gender relations in her 1998 book, "Sexual Politics." "There will never be a war of the sexes in France."

It seemed to Agacinski, as to many other European feminists, that by embracing a public image of gender-neutral egalitarianism, American women had cut themselves off from the perks of being female -- good maternity leave, for example. And even from the little, politically incorrect joys of life -- doors being held, a chance to be treated, in private life, at least, with a pleasant, noncompetitive, gallantry.

In other words, American women were living dogs' lives.

While I lived in Paris, I persisted in thinking otherwise. Sure, I discovered, when I had my first baby there, life with a child was easy. The social protections were fantastic, even for a foreigner. A five-day hospital stay, tax breaks to help pay for a nanny, wonderful part-time preschool starting at age 16 months, all underwritten by government funds. Some of my French friends, who were fully covered by the system, had even better perks: six-month paid maternity leaves, government subsidies, the right to work a four-day week.

But as a reporter for Newsweek specializing in women's issues, I also saw a dark side to these special privileges: a workplace culture with pervasive sexual harassment -- after all, if men were men and women were women, you couldn't stop the "attraction" between them; and near-institutional sex discrimination, as employers seized upon the costs and constraints of the country's protective laws to avoid hiring women of childbearing age. And how, I reasoned, could it be otherwise? If women wore their sexuality like a banner, in public as well as in private, it was only natural that they would bring upon themselves all the reactions that their sexuality generates: age-old prejudices, intolerance, hostility. By playing the femininity card, French women had mired themselves in the confines of traditional sexism.

I was particularly convinced of this a year ago, when the French passed a new "parity" law intended to encourage a 50-50 split of elected posts between men and women. This was promoted partly on the grounds that women, being more concrete in their thinking, more honest, cooperative and down-to-earth than men, would change the way France is governed. This initiative, which was put to the test for the first time in municipal elections earlier this spring, brought voters candidate lists that were 50 percent female. It also brought an onslaught of Minnie Mouse candidates -- unschooled, unprepared, unable in any real way to govern. Take Sabine Fettu, a conservative candidate for city council in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie and self-described schmoozer, who campaigned in a fur coat urging other women candidates to dress appealingly and went around spouting, "We're all products. We'll do anything to make a sale."

This was not what I had associated with women's equality. As an American girl of the 1970s, as a feminist coming of age in the '80s, I was a devotee of the girls-can-do-anything school -- a socialization that rested on the idea that, not only was biology not destiny, it was largely irrelevant. And I truly believed, as I gazed back at my country from France, that American feminists had managed to secure for American women a sex-free public space in which they could operate with dignity as people first and women second.

And so, when a French phone salesman tried to sell me a junky, light blue "feminine" cell phone, or when a French source suggested that I'd get better interviews if I were less direct and more "feminine" in my approach, I felt a shiver of superiority. "I am an American," I told the phone salesman, as though this meant that, as a woman, I had risen to a higher sphere of personhood. It was the closest thing to nationalism that I felt in those years abroad.

It's very easy, when you're an expatriate, to idealize your homeland and project onto it all the virtues lacking in your host country. Especially when your thoughts of home are supplied by CNN and the movies you see on the Champs Elyse{acute}es. My years in France coincided with the era of Janet Reno and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Of Madeleine Albright and Christiane Amanpour. Of "G.I. Jane" and a kick-boxing Ashley Judd and a black-belt Rene{acute} Russo playing a character who can break heads while pregnant, and a whole slew of new female action heroes looking fabulous as they ran around with walkie-talkies and guns.

I would watch these American Amazons and thrill to the virile virtues they projected. I would leave the theater and see the French women lighting their cigarettes, tugging on their male companions' arms and pouting their way into the night, and I'd think: God bless America. We're doing something right.

And then I moved back to the United States.

My family and I settled in Washington and I started casting about for work. I met with an older woman who worked for a female politician. I casually asked if there might be any kind of writing I could do on the Hill. "That's not for you," she said. "That's for a young person, without children."

I made some interested noises about working for a magazine. "You wouldn't want to," I was told. "None of us have children."

I had moved to France as a childless 29-year-old. I came back to America a mother of two. And this was an eye-opener.

American women, I found, weren't more evolved than French women. If anything, they were caught in sex roles more traditional than those I had seen in France. Suddenly, the horizon seemed lower, for myself and my peers -- who, quite honestly, really did seem to be leading dogs' lives.

The stay-at-home moms had no time of their own. They were on an infernal treadmill: school and play dates and soccer and violin and gymnastics and ballet and tutoring. Mommy & Me and volunteering, with do-gooder meetings running into the night. And, topping it all off, a mental chorus of admonition, running in their minds like the drone of NPR in their minivans: Did anyone realize how hard they were working? Did anyone realize they still had a brain? Did anyone appreciate the time they were giving? Did anyone care about what they had to say?

This u{dier}ber-momming represented a level of selflessness that would have been considered downright neurotic in France. No woman with a family life, the thinking would have run (once the laughter subsided), no woman who wanted to preserve her family life (which, after all, was anchored around her husband) would be out doing children's activities all day, let alone at night.

As for the working mothers I got to know in America: They looked tired and harried. And adding to their stress was their own background noise, the media-fed dirge of guilt: Were they doing the right thing with their lives? Had they made the right choices? Were their children well taken care of? Should they be working less, differently, not at all? Were they really good enough mothers?

This level of guilt was something I had never come across in France, where I had worked since my first child was 4 months old. Indeed, I had never, in the many work-family conversations I had with French friends or in interviews, even heard the word "guilt." It wasn't in the air. Had I expressed it, it would have sounded, once again, like sheer neurosis. Work was seen as an essential component of modern motherhood, a component of good motherhood, in fact, because it was something that helped women feel happy and whole.

Particularly odd was how readily my American peers accepted all their stress and guilt as a natural consequence of motherhood. It didn't seem to dawn on anyone that there could be another way.

I almost felt as if I had stepped into a time warp. It was as though we were still caught in a 1970s-era discussion about women's lib, still living in a time where women felt the need to debate whether or not they should work. Still ignoring utterly the facts that the bad-old-fashioned French so heartily embraced: that the vast majority of women do work, that work is actually a good thing for them and their families, and is something that need not be experienced as unduly stressful or guilt-provoking or a sacrifice.

It seems to me that the French, where mothers are concerned, have wedded their society's belief in diffe{acute}rence to a realistic and humane view of modern women's lives. We Americans, on the other hand, have wedded an abstract belief in equal opportunity to punitive notions of women's "choice" and women's "compromises." The result is that once children come into the picture, women retain the right to compete in the marketplace, but lose the right to any kind of decent quality of life. Or as Sophie L'He{acute}lias, a French businesswoman who has lived and worked in Washington for the past three years, puts it: "It's much more difficult to have a balanced life here. The equation is more complicated. There are more choices to be made."

Perhaps that's why Joan Williams, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law and author of "Unbending Gender," has, like many other American feminists, turned her eyes to France. What interests her particularly is French legislation limiting the workweek to 35 hours. According to Williams, America's workaholic culture creates many of the ills befalling women of childbearing age today. The antidote, Williams believes, is a massive, top-down restructuring of the workplace, so that it is better adapted to the rhythms of women's lives.

A government-mandated restructuring of the workplace is unlikely to happen in America anytime soon, however. And, at any rate, it isn't government directives that dictate behavior, even in a dirigiste country like France. If things are better for women there, it is due to a profound and enduring social consensus that life should be made livable based on who they are and not on an abstract moralistic notion of how they ought to be. That conviction, however, rests on another fundamental belief, sorely lacking in America: that our emphasis should not be on doing as much as we can but on achieving a decent quality of life. Maybe quality of life -- pure and simple -- is what we as women ought to be fighting for these days. Not just for ourselves -- but for the men and children in our lives as well. Judith Warner, the author of "Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story" (Signet), lived in France from 1995 to 2000. Busy, but not overwhelmed: A broker at the Paris Bourse, above. Below: The 11 female municipal candidates of "Osons Brissac" in southern France, who decided to get involved politically to solve Brissac's school issues just a few weeks before the compulsory "parity" law for equal representation took effect in March of this year.