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Commentary: Michelle Obama, stir up the White House!

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  • Leslie Steiner: Michelle Obama should break with traditional first lady role
  • Steiner disputes idea that first ladies should steer clear of controversy
  • Steiner: Invent a new title for the job -- how about "mom-in-chief"?
  • She says Michelle Obama should be free to take a paying job if she wants
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By Leslie Morgan Steiner
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Leslie Morgan Steiner is the editor of the best-selling anthology "Mommy Wars" and the author of the upcoming memoir "Crazy Love." From 2006 to 2008 she wrote the Washington Post's online work/family column, "On Balance." She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.

Leslie Morgan Steiner says Michelle Obama should break out of the mold of meek first ladies.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A few weeks into Barack Obama's victory lap, Michelle Obama's already under the microscope. And I'm part of the dissecting team.

As a white mom, I recently joined four wise, experienced black moms examining the unique opportunities facing Mrs. Obama.

The essays we wrote created a stir in the new online magazine The Root and we discussed our divergent views on a National Public Radio panel.

Although our disagreements were nuanced and civil, I had to chomp my tongue when Anna Perez, the first African-American to serve as a first lady's press secretary, offered Michelle Obama the following advice on-air: "Follow Barbara Bush's rule and never, ever make your husband expend one iota of political capital cleaning up after you."

Surely Barbara and Laura Bush have been among the most well-liked and non-controversial first ladies in history. And the least effective. I might shoot myself if Michelle Obama, clearly a free-thinking, independent candidate's wife, follows the example set by white first ladies who did little more than prom queens waving from the parade float.

Both Bush ladies advocated literacy as their primary cause -- in a country with a 99 percent adult literacy rate. Sadly, too many white women in this country, first ladies and regular ones alike, follow Barbara Bush's advice to be a good girl and avoid making any trouble, to the detriment of women and children everywhere.

The problem with most white first ladies, with the exceptions of the uppity Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, is that they've been so meek in their advocacy. I don't begrudge the Bush ladies their values. What infuriates me is the collective societal pressure that makes their goody-two-shoes pablum palatable to others.

Former press secretary Perez also argued that first ladies have no power. Well, Barbara Bush may have backed away from change like a toddler near a hot stove, but not our Michelle.

Admittedly, policy and legislation are off limits because Michelle Obama is not an elected official. But here's the beauty of Michelle Obama's position: She wasn't elected and she can't be impeached. Therefore Michelle can be audacious and outspoken about inequities facing women and minorities in America.

We live in a country with a crippling rate of teen pregnancy, the highest in the western industrialized world; our African-American women experience family violence at rates 35% higher than white women; and gender-based pay disparity costs women $2 million over a lifetime.

Barbara Bush's advice is particularly dangerous for Michelle Obama, given that African-American women have long been silenced by the "angry black woman" stereotype -- despite good reasons to be angry, such as the facts that African-American infants die at twice the national average, and 40 percent of African-American women report suffering coercive sexual attacks by age 18.

American women of all ethnicities need Michelle Obama to speak out about these problems and many others.

Michelle can brainstorm incendiary ideas all by herself, but here's my yeast for a dynamic four years:

• Invent a new title. No rule -- merely tradition -- requires the "first lady" nameplate. Mom-in-chief? Chief everything officer? First mom? So be it.

• Establish a brain trust of scientists, doctors and social historians to explore the physical, societal, and psychological challenges facing African-American women and girls in this country -- an under-researched subject in a field where most dollars (and public awareness) go toward research on issues facing black men, white men and white women.

• Bar white male reporters from your press conferences. Sounds crazy, but Eleanor Roosevelt held over 350 women-only press conferences during her 12 years in the White House. Her policy forced every major newspaper to hire female reporters, many for the first time.

• Show us your culture. Have your mom move into the White House to help out -- as many successful women do in this country when facing the challenges of being a working mother of young children. Dress yourself, your children and your home as you wish, using African-American designers, cooks, hairstylists, decorators. Or not. You -- not your specific acts -- are the message we need.

• Take a paying job. Explain that no matter how "lucky" you are to have such a successful husband, work has rewards that everyone deserves. Or stay home, and show us how caring for your family can be a rewarding full-time job in itself.

• Don't let the media spin your story; talk to the country directly. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, hold weekly press conferences and write a column. Make it a blog; today's citizens expect communication to be a dialogue.

• Be a fair, family-friendly employer modeling work/life balance. Establish a formal part-time, flextime policy for White House employees. Open a subsidized day care center at the White House. Make sure the country's most dedicated civil servants can see their families and keep their health intact while working hard for our country.

My hope for Michelle Obama is that she can avoid the mistakes that have sabotaged most white first ladies: placing too high a premium on living a demure, deferential, non-controversial life, at the expense of productive social change.

Stir things up, Michelle! This country needs some stirring.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leslie Morgan Steiner.

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