By Jennifer Szalai

A woman sits on the edge of a desk, a spray of pink daisies to her left and floral paper on the walls. The desk bears the gentle clutter of somebody busy but not overwhelmed: a leaning stack of papers, a cup filled with too many pencils, a tangle of paper clips. The woman wears a plum-brown dress, cinched at the waist and unbuttoned at the collar, large button-pearl earrings and still more pearls looped around her neck, along with a gold pendant chain. With her hands clasped loosely in her lap, she smiles, her mouth curved into a languid grin.

Helen Gurley Brown was 60 when this picture was taken, and she had reason to be pleased. She had been editing Cosmopolitan magazine for nearly two decades, bringing her mix of workplace confessionals and candid sex tips to a growing demographic of single working women. The photograph would be the cover of her next book, “Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money . . . Even if You’re Starting With Nothing,” published in 1982.

Three decades later, “having it all” sounds less like peppy encouragement and more like an admonishment or reproach. The most common incarnation of these three little words is now reserved for the endless debates over whether women can balance the demands of career with the demands of motherhood — an equilibrium that, as the economy continues to grind its gears, feels increasingly out of reach. Last month, The New York Times reported that the percentage of American women in the work force has been falling over the past decade and that 61 percent of nonworking women cite family responsibilities as the reason.

Brown’s book now looks like a charming artifact from a more hopeful time. With “Having It All,” she wanted to reach women who might be ready for more — more love, more money, more stability and, inevitably, more sex — and were willing to work for it. Brown, who fought her own way up from a childhood of poverty in the Ozarks, tailored her advice to “mouseburgers” like her: women who are “not prepossessing, not pretty, don’t have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets.” The book is filled with precisely detailed instructions on everything a woman needs to know to “ 'mouseburger’ your way to the top,” including whether to sleep with your boss (“Why discriminate against him?”), what to eat (“You may have to have a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight . . . not a heavy case, just a little one!”) and how to please your man (“Don’t grab too hard” and make sure to “keep your teeth behind your lips”). Lena Dunham cited “Having It All” as an inspiration for her own recent best seller, “Not That Kind of Girl,” but the legacy of Brown’s book is less palpable in Dunham’s memoir (which isn’t so much sincere advice manual as over-the-top confessional) than in the phrase that has persisted as a burden and a cliché ever since it was printed in red on the cover in 1982.

Today, “having it all” is evoked so frequently and facetiously that it has become akin to some malign joke — heard, hated, yet repeated ad nauseam. When the question is posed about whether women can “have it all,” the answer arrived at is typically no, along with some incredulous scolding of those women who ever had the nerve to think they could. (In an article titled “Why Men Still Can’t Have It All,” a correspondent for Esquire magazine expended some 6,000 words to complain that women were complaining too much.) “Please, let’s stop talking about ‘having it all’ and start talking about the real challenges of ‘doing it all,' ” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand wrote in her recent book, “Off the Sidelines,” dismissing the phrase as “an absurd frame.” Even Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning for the State Department, who has suggested that “having it all” might sound less ridiculous if the American government offered more support for working parents, acknowledges that the term carries little currency these days; in a 2012 cover story for The Atlantic, she recalled that younger women would thank her for “not giving just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all’ talk.”

The popular thinking is that the term went from empowering to delusional, running up against the hard truths of reality to get worn down to the spurious fantasy underneath. Feminists, according to this narrative, were the ones who promised women they could have it all — rewarding career, loving partner, cheerful brood — and then couldn’t deliver. Conservatives have been particularly enamored of this story. “Feminist groups like to pretend that women can have it all without sacrificing time with families,” Carrie L. Lukas, a managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum, wrote in her 2006 book about feminism. The Federalist peddled a similar argument: “Women ask about having it all because they were told they could have it all . . . by women like [Gloria] Steinem.”

The idea that feminism was the source for such a pernicious ideal has become so widely assumed that even Patricia Ireland, a former president of the National Organization for Women, seemed to subscribe to a variation of this notion. “Twenty years ago, it was a triumphant phrase and also a demand,” she told William Safire in 2001 for a column in this magazine, but “the phrase has come to carry with it a sense of being overwhelmed.” Hence the sad fate of the Career Bogeywoman, her soul sucked dry by her high-powered job, her children barely nourished by the dregs of maternal instinct that managed to survive her outsize ambition.

Once you start digging into the origins of the phrase, however, this narrative begins to unravel. “Having it all,” at least as it applies to women and work, has a relatively limited pedigree. Ruth Rosen, a scholar who has written extensively about the history of feminism, told me that you can’t find much archival evidence of the phrase before the tail end of the 1970s — and even then, it wasn’t so much a feminist mantra as a marketing pitch directed toward the well-heeled “liberated” consumer. In 1980, two years before Brown’s book, Joyce Gabriel and Bettye Baldwin published “Having It All: A Practical Guide to Managing a Home and a Career”; true to its promise, Gabriel and Baldwin’s book offers straightforward tips on how a working mother might make the most of her scarce time. (“Strive to do two things at once,” the authors advise, like letting your nail polish set while you blow-dry your hair.) Women’s magazines and Madison Avenue might have been selling the concept, but it was after Brown’s book landed on the best-seller list, Rosen says, that the phrase gathered real cultural momentum, becoming shorthand for having kids and a career.

There is, then, no small absurdity in the fact that Brown’s vision omitted children. Only six of the 462 pages of “Having It All” mention them, and Brown has a hard time disguising her suspicion that children aren’t so seamlessly integrated into her program. Admitting her own lack of firsthand knowledge on the subject, she quotes several of her time-starved mother-friends as authorities and sounds mildly flummoxed that anyone would willingly undertake such an endeavor: “Isn’t that a hard sell if you ever heard one?”

What’s more, the book’s title wasn’t her idea. She detested it. Her biographer, Jennifer Scanlon, told me that months before “Having It All” was published, Brown wrote a letter to her editors pleading with them to use the title she wanted, “The Mouseburger Plan.”

“I’ve always visualized this as a book for the downtrodden,” Brown said, “a book by a near loser who got to be a winner, instead of somebody who sounds — based on the title — like a smartass all-the-time winner from the beginning.” (Which might explain the surprisingly cozy cover image; the photographer, Klaus Lucka, told me that Brown was adamant about the décor. It conveys, he said, the warmth of a “suburban home office” rather than anything too corporate and sleek.) She conceded that she would accept her editors’ choice, but not before emphatically reiterating her objections: “ 'Having It All’ sounds so [expletive] cliché to me.”

And there you have it — we somehow took a puffed-up corporate come-on, one that made Brown herself chafe more than 30 years ago, and twisted it in the collective memory into a false promise of feminism. The built-in vapidity, the vagueness with which “having it all” specifies everything and therefore nothing, allows us to talk as if we know everything we need to know about working mothers while saying nothing substantive about the particular challenges they face. To say that women expect to “have it all” is to trivialize issues like parental leave, equal pay and safe, affordable child care; it makes women sound like entitled, narcissistic battle-axes while also casting them as fools.

This rewriting of recent history that blames the women’s movement for women’s troubles is just one part of the “backlash” that Susan Faludi wrote about more than two decades ago. It is a self-perpetuating feedback loop of distortions and half-truths. The false accusation of betrayal has “a way of turning women away from making demands on society,” Rosen says. The real betrayal lies not with the women’s movement but with those who would rather keep us distracted by a never-ending sideshow than pay attention to the world as it really is.

Jennifer Szalai is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.