Is it really a good political year for women?

AP Photo: Meg Whitman, left, winner of the Republican nomination for governor of California, and Carly Fiorina, the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate from California, celebrate at a post-primary election celebration in Anaheim, Calif.AP Photo: Meg Whitman, left, winner of the Republican nomination for governor of California, and Carly Fiorina, …The last time we heard about "the year of the woman" in politics, it was 1992. A record number of women were elected to Congress that year-24 to the House and five to the Senate. Anita Hill had a lot to do with that; the way the mostly male Senate questioned her when she stepped forward with sexual harassment complaints against Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, made lots of us fighting mad. And we went to the polls to show it.

Eighteen years later, we're hearing a lot about this being another good year for women in politics. At first glance, it may seem that way: Two former, high-powered, very rich women CEOs won Republican primary elections in California-eBay's Meg Whitman for governor, and Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, won the right to face Democrat Barbara Boxer for a U.S. Senate seat. In Nevada, a tea party-backed state legislator, Sharron Angle, beat the Republican party favorite for the chance to oust Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. And in South Carolina, a state representative, Nikki Haley, moved past infidelity allegations to win the top spot in a GOP runoff for governor.

"If Nikki Haley makes it through the runoff, she has a very good shot at being the first woman governor of South Carolina-and that's significant because South Carolina ranks dead last, 50th in the percentage of women in state legislatures," says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. South Carolina's state senate is the only legislative chamber in the country with no women in it.

Okay, clearly, that would be a gain for women. But when we first started tallying the numbers of women running for office and finally winning them, it was a good bet that the women being elected were for equal pay legislation, equal rights in the workplace, and pro-choice. The big difference this year is that more Republican women are running for office nationwide, and some, backed by the grassroots tea party movement, are less moderate than their forerunners and are besting standard party favorites.

So now Nevada has Angle, who votes no on just about every piece of legislation, and whose own best-known sponsored bill would have required the "dissemination of information concerning the scientific link between induced abortion and increased rate of breast cancer." She is against same-sex marriage, and, it seems, having two parents hold jobs simultaneously. All of which could be good news for the embattled Harry Reid camp, or maybe not. Fiorina is anti-abortion, against same-sex marriage, and opposes California's landmark climate-change law.

This is also the year when women like Sarah Palin who once ran from the word "feminist" are now embracing it, some would say co-opting it, as Jessica Valenti writes in her Washington Post op-ed piece. In an interesting twist, they are aligning themselves with the suffragist movement of 100 years ago so they don't have to give credit to the more recent feminist movement. And it's working. Sarah Palin's endorsement is a sought-after prize on the campaign trail, and her tea-party support may very well be boosting efforts by conservative women who would not have made it beyond the primaries in the past.

But, you know, even though it's alarming that women who take what some of us clearly see as anti-women stands are making it to general elections, it is actually another sign of how far women have come in politics.

"Part of what you're seeing now is the accomplishment of the women's political movement in the community to open the doors for women in politics," CAWP's Walsh says. "When you push open those doors everybody can come in. It just took awhile."

Another good thing about this year's elections: Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post notes that gender was not the focus of any of these races. Money was, for sure. Fiorina did bring up her battle with breast cancer, but gender issues did not rise to the top.

"Tuesday's elections put on display the increasing diversity of female candidates and their growing resilience. They were pro-choice and pro-life, old and young, part of the political establishment and new to it," Kornblut writes. "Their male opponents attacked them-relentlessly, in some cases-apparently unworried about being seen as picking on a woman. The women touched on their gender, but did so sparingly."

Now that we've seen a very credible candidate handle a presidential campaign (Hillary Clinton), and a vice presidential candidate build considerable political sway across the country after losing (Sarah Palin), no one seems to question whether women are right for the job. But we do need to question whether merely electing a woman is a true win for the women-and men-they represent. Let's not call the fact that billionaire and millionaire women are following billionaire and millionaire men into high office progress. And let's not say that the number of women running alone makes 2010 "the year of the woman," especially when some of today's candidates fail to credit the women who worked very hard before them for their right to run and be supported for political office.