03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Model for Michelle in California

When Barack Obama placed his hand on Lincoln's bible and swore his allegiance as our new president with the eyes of the world upon him, the woman standing behind him unceremoniously became our 44nd first lady. In doing so, Michelle Obama made history in her own right, on the road to navigating a role laden with traditional expectations at the dawn of a new era with expectations to break traditions.

This new century has seen the first lady of Argentina elected as president as well as the prospect of a former American president becoming our first spouse. In answering the question of what it means to be a first spouse today, Michelle Obama should look beyond the West Wing to the west coast, where Maria Shriver has built a model for passionate independence as a dynamic partner to her husband, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There is no job description or list of constitutional duties for a first spouse. The un-written rules long dictated that first ladies stand by, stand behind, and, at best, stand-in for their elected spouse. It is the job of her staff to keep her off of the front page, unless it's the front page of the style section.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, as the most well-known activist first ladies, drew a mix of admiration and ridicule. First ladies who stood out in their own right have often divided men vs. women, Republicans vs. Democrats, women who work vs. women who stay at home. Even after trivial controversy about a hyphen, Senator Clinton's maiden name quietly slipped away.

Maria Shriver's name requires no hyphen and needs no defending. Controversy about whether or not she privately disagrees with her husband on any particular issue is eclipsed by public awareness that they belong to different political parties and even endorsed opposing candidates for president. The first couple's unprecedented brand of post-partisan partnership has been well received across the old battle lines of politics and gender.

Even more remarkable than Maria's ability to differ without dividing is her ability to take her husband's side without being reduced to a mere stand-in or being mischaracterized as a "Lady Macbeth." Despite their differences, Maria Shriver has always made it clear that she holds her husband's core values, strength of character, and suitability to lead in the highest regard.

She has put that conviction into action, recruiting key members of his staff, contributing to key elements of his message, and defending his identity as "the people's governor" as fiercely within the privacy of his office as she has in public.

Maria has not avoided controversy simply by avoiding controversial issues. She has been candid about supporting gay marriage and opposing the death penalty without ever becoming a distraction from her or her husband's broader efforts on behalf of all Californians.

And she didn't avoid the perilous role of lightning rod by adhering to the conventional rule of sticking to one safe "feel-good" cause. Her groundbreaking "WE Connect" initiative has successfully lifted thousands of California families out of poverty within a complicated environment of social service cuts and economic crisis.

Her suggestion that the governor make California first in the nation to elevate service and volunteerism to the level of cabinet secretary made headlines across the state and nation. As honorary co-chair of the California Museum, Maria created the groundbreaking California Hall of Fame and presided over the induction of ideological icons ranging from Ronald Reagan to Jane Fonda.

The response to her and the governor's shared vision for the Hall of Fame and the world's premiere women's conference made past divisions according to politics, gender, marital status, or career choices seem like relics of the past.

Just like pioneering first ladies before her, Maria is transforming the role from one of stand-behind to one of stand out. As an example of standing out without being unduly attacked for it, Maria Shriver may stand alone. That has required a formula of strength, smarts, savvy, and strategic thinking. I bet Michelle Obama will prove again that good things begin in California.