your connection to The Boston Globe

In boardroom, Hillary Clinton pushed for women

But was silent on union issue

Senator Hillary Clinton, who received an honorary degree yesterday at Dillard University in New Orleans, rarely discusses her Wal-Mart tenure. (ALEX BRANDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In 1986, Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, had a problem. He was under growing pressure from shareholders -- and his wife, Helen -- to appoint a woman to the company's 15-member board of directors.

So Walton turned to a young lawyer who just happened to be married to the governor of Arkansas, where Wal-Mart is based: Hillary Clinton.

Clinton's six-year tenure as a director of Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retail company, remains a little known chapter in her closely scrutinized career. And it is little known for a reason. Clinton rarely, if ever, discusses it, leaving her board membership out of her speeches and off her campaign website.

Fellow board members and company executives, who have rarely discussed her role in Wal-Mart, say Clinton used her position to champion personal causes, like the need for more women in management and a comprehensive environmental program. At the time, she was Wal-Mart's only female director, the youngest and arguably the least experienced in business. On other topics, like Wal-Mart's vehement antiunionism, for example, she was largely silent, they said.

Her years on the Wal-Mart board, from 1986 to 1992, gave her an unusual tutorial in the ways of American business -- a credential that could serve as an antidote to Republican efforts to portray her as an enemy of free markets and an advocate for big government.

But that education came via a company that the Democratic Party -- and its major ally, organized labor -- has turned into a target, accusing it of offering unaffordable health insurance and mistreating its workers.

So rather than promote her board membership, Clinton is now running from it, even returning a $5,000 campaign donation from the giant discount chain in 2005, citing "serious differences" with its practices.

But disentangling herself from the company is harder than it may seem.

Walton appeared relieved to have a woman on the board to deflect criticism, telling shareholders during the annual meeting in 1987 that the company had a "strong - willed young lady on the board now who has already told the board it should do more to ensure the advancement of women."

Still, the board's discussions did not translate into significant progress. By the late 1990s, after Clinton had left the board, Wal-Mart had added a second female director, but the number of women in senior management remained paltry, according to company records. (Today, 23 percent of Wal-Mart's top 300 corporate officers are women, but the company is fighting a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination by 1.6 million current and former female employees.)

Clinton had greater success on environmental issues. At her request, Walton set up an environmental advisory group, which sent a series of recommendations to the company's board.

Under her watch, the advisory group drew up elaborate plans. Consumers would bring in used motor oil and batteries for recycling. Suppliers would reduce the size of their packaging. And Wal-Mart would build stores with energy-saving features.

Wal-Mart executives put much of the program into place. In 1993, for example, they opened an experimental "eco-store" in Kansas, with dozens of skylights and wooden beams from forests that had not been clear cut.

One executive derided it as "Hillary's store" because it was more expensive to build than the average Wal-Mart, but several of its features, like the skylights that cut energy bills by reducing the need for artificial lighting, were widely copied across the industry.

Though she was passionate about issues like gender and sustainability, Clinton largely sat on the sidelines when it came to Wal-Mart and unions, board members said.

Since its founding in 1962, Wal-Mart has fought unionization efforts at its stores and warehouses, employing hard-nosed tactics -- like firing union supporters and allegedly spying on employees -- that have become the subject of legal complaints against the company.