For the first time in the post-feminist era, the number of working women has begun to retreat, with even graduates from prestigious universities giving up promising careers for old-fashioned domesticity.

A new magazine launched in California has seized on the trend. The cover of Total 180! shows a slender, radiant woman balancing her daughter on one hip as she tosses her briefcase into the trash.

Says the magazine's website: "With practical information that validates, supports, and reassures their lifestyle, Total 180! is the sustenance for professional women turned stay-at-home moms."

Erika Kotite, the magazine's chief editor, said six million women have chosen to leave the workforce to stay home and raise their children.
 
But they feel isolated, she said, and the magazine aims to  address their needs "with humour and lightheartedness".

But not everyone sees this positively, especially feminists who fought decades ago to open workplace doors to women.

'Alarming' trend
  
Rose Olver, a professor of women's studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, called the trend "somewhat alarming".

"Women in the 1970s fought for access and my sense is that the urgency to open the work place to women has subsided"

Rose Olver
Professor of women's studies, Amherst College

"Women in the 1970s fought for access, and my sense is that the urgency to open the work place to women has subsided," Olver said.
  
"Opportunities open for women may decrease" in the future if  more women drop out, she said.

"The older generation feel maybe a bit put out that this  generation is so cavalierly assuming that these possibilities will  be open to them."

Feminist theories

Linda Fowler, professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said: "The child-rearing issue is much thornier than many feminists thought it would be."

"What feminist theorists thought was that, if enough women were in the workplace in high-scale and highly qualified jobs, the whole workplace economy would be more humanised. That has not happened," Fowler said.

"There is still a difference on obstacles women face as they are trying to juggle a career and family."

Changing trend

But behind the debate of whether the trend is good or bad is a broader stagnation or decline in women holding jobs in the US workplace after rising for 50 years straight.

A White House report said last month that "the new factor at play is the change in the trend in the female participation rate, which has edged down on balance since 2000 after  having risen for five decades".

In 2000, 77% of women between 25 and 54 held a job in the  United States.
  
By 2005, the level had dropped to 75%, a significant demographic shift.

How much the data represent voluntary workplace dropouts by women and how much they are forced is debated.

Simple economics

Kim Gandy, president of the feminist National Organisation of Women, which helped promote working women from the 1960s, said the decline of women in the US workforce reflects in part simple economics: the fall in overall jobs since the US economy slowed sharply in 2000.

However, she said that other factors, like wages and the cost of childcare, affect working women more than men.

"When good jobs are plentiful, it becomes easier to cover the  cost of child care with your wages.

"When wages are depressed ... it becomes a much closer question as to whether it's worth a tradeoff."
 
Often in families it is the woman rather than the man who weighs her own income against household costs, deciding whether or not to keep a job, Gandy said.

"There are definitely some women whose wage work does not bring  in enough money in order to make a significant impact on the family," she said.

"You might say that in her case she could make a choice, but  most women don't see it as a choice."