America now has many famous female comics. But it has been a 60-year struggle, a book reveals

When American magazine journalist Yael Kohen went looking for a book on the history of female comedians, she was stunned to discover that almost nothing had been written on the subject.

"There were some academic works and I found one book that was not in print any more. [Female comics] had been overlooked. Their contributions were still overshadowed," Kohen said.

So Kohen, a contributing editor for Marie Claire, put together a remarkable history of women in comedy, telling their story from the brave pioneers of the 1950s, such as ground-breaking standup Phyllis Diller, to modern, A-list Hollywood power-players like Kristen Wiig.

The book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in Comedy, features scores of first-person interviews, clips from contemporary reviews and excerpts from stories on a huge roster of female comics, their male contemporaries and the people that they inspired or knew them. It paints a picture of a long battle fought by women to break into the comic arena. After all, it was only in 2007 that Christopher Hitchens notoriously used the pages of Vanity Fair to write an essay headlined "Why Women Aren't Funny". That sort of attitude infuriates women working in comedy today.

"No women ever said that women were not funny, because all women do is get together and laugh. I can't believe this conversation still exists, yet it does," said Judy Carter, a standup comic and motivational speaker.

It is a sentiment echoed by another American standup, Gaby Dunn. "It is just tiresome. It is like a misdirection. For every moment that we are talking about female comedians as women and whether they are funny or about their clothes and looks, then we are not focusing on their actual comedy," she said.

Yet as We Killed shows, fighting that prejudice has been there from the beginning. The book begins by looking at Diller, whose appearance on the standup scene in the late 1950s in New York comedy clubs was nothing short of revolutionary.

"Here was a woman complaining about a husband rather than a husband complaining about the woman or the mother-in-law. I think that was the big switch. We have a life too, and it's fun and it's funny and we can make fun of ourselves and you, but from our side of the fence and not from yours," says comedy writer Gene Perret in the book.

But Diller's act still reflected the social mores of her day. Her trademark lines often lampooned her spouse or herself, setting her comedy firmly within the domestic sphere. She also disguised her sexual appeal so that people would not focus on her sex. "I had to dress so that they couldn't see any figure because I wanted to make jokes," Kohen quotes Diller as saying.

The book goes on to the tell the story of the female comics who emerged in the 1960s, such as Joan Rivers, who also made a name for herself with self-deprecation. Yet Rivers also put raunchy material in her act. "I was talking about having an affair with a married professor, and that wasn't a thing a nice Jewish girl talked about … I was talking about my gay friend, Mr Phyllis, and you just didn't talk about that," she told Kohen.

That helped to pave the way for more political and feminist comics to emerge, such as Lily Tomlin in the late 1960s. Then in the 1970s women comics burst onto television – not in the role of wives and mothers, but as independent women, such as in the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not that it was easy. Kohen reveals how the actress and producer Marlo Thomas once gave a top ABC executive a copy of the classic 60s feminist tract by Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique. "He read it and kind of became convinced," Thomas says in the book.

By the 80s, comics such as Elayne Boosler were doing edgier material ("The Vatican is against surrogate mothers. Good thing they didn't have that rule when Jesus was born.") They were also starting to become more powerful – Late Night with David Letterman had a female lead writer. By the 90s, comedians such as Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres had mainstream hit shows led by feisty, powerful women.

Alternative comics such as Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho were major standup names and Whoopi Goldberg had gone from standup to being a wildly popular movie star. Yet still it was not easy. Carter remembered taking part in a standup comedy act that was being videoed by Paramount. She was introduced by a man with the remark: "Now here is something different. Our next comic has tits!"

Now, women comics have never seemed more powerful or more present. Wiig's film Bridesmaids was one of the most successful films of 2011. Comedians such as Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham and Chelsea Handler have become major figures in the cultural landscape.

However, they also represent a wide variety of styles: from the raunch of Handler to the self-conscious angst of Dunham to the cutting satire of Silverman. "It is an evolution. What we see now are more and more women, and so we get a greater diversity of things that they are talking about," said Kohen.

© Guardian News and Media 2012