Frieda Barkin Hennock

9-27-1904 to 6-20-1960
Lawyer and Federal Official

Frieda Hennock, the first woman appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was born in Kvel, Poland, the youngest of six girls and two boys of Boris and Sarah (Barkin) Hennock. She came to the United States in 1910 with her parents and acquired citizenship in 1916 upon the naturalization of her father, who became a real estate broker and banker in New York City. After attending Morris High School in the Bronx, Hennock entered Brooklyn Law School. She clerked in several New York law offices to help pay for her education, since her parents opposed her choice of career. She graduated in 1924, but could not be admitted to the bar until she was twenty-one.

Hennock became one of New York's most successful women lawyers. She began her practice in 1926 with fifty-six dollars, in the office of a woman friend. The following year, she formed a partnership with Julius Silver, later explaining that it had seemed beneficial to practice with a man because of the barriers encountered by women lawyers. The two dissolved the firm in 1934 because of disagreements, and Hennock eventually received $9,000 and court costs from a suit against Silver over a pertnership share in Edwin H. Land's invention, the Polaroid Camera. A successful criminal lawyer, Hennock said she changed to corporate law because the emotional drain was less and because as a woman she had to work doubly hard to win criminal cases. She served as assistant counsel to the New York Mortgage Commission (1935-1939), studying low-cost housing, and lectured on current developments in law and economics at the Brooklyn Law School (1936). In 1941 Hennock had the distinction of being the first woman and the first Democrat to be associated with Choate, Mitchell and Ely, one of New York City's most prestigious law firms.

Hennock's appointment as the first woman FCC commissioner in 1948 was due to her role as an energetic campaigner and financial contributor to New York Democratic party politics and to the strong support of India Edwards, director of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, who pressured President Harry S. Truman to appoint women to federal jobs. The Senate confirmed the appointment on June 20,1948, despite the strong Democratic partisanship she had revealed to the Republican majority on the committee. Hennock gave up a substantial income from her law practice to take the FCC position, but said she has "sufficient means" to accept the relatively low government salary. In her acceptance speech Hennock observed: "It seems fundamental that in this field [communications] -- so peculiarly affecting women -- the viewpoint of this sex should be represented." To a Milwaukee Journal reporter she remarked: "Women haven't had nearly the recognition they deserve. If they have brains and ability they should not be penalized merely because they wear a skirt." Hennock represented women well, generally working from 8:30AM until10:00 or 10:30PM; she also studied electronics and engineering to master communications technicalities. On occasion, however, she tempered work with dancing, riding, tennis, golf, and swimming.

At the FCC, Commissioner Hennock's major effort was directed toward reserving channels in the developing television medium for educational use. Although she argued unsuccessfully that a minimum of 500 channels should be saved for noncommercial purposes, the commission did agree in 1952 to reserve 242 channels. Hennock next prodded educators to apply for channels even thought funds to operate the stations might not be immediately available. she told a New York Daily News reporter that "educators were asleep at the switch in standerd radio" and she feared they would also fail to utilize educational television. Dramatizing her cause, Hennock spent countless weekends in cities from coast to coast promotimg educational television, and wrote a dozen articles for magazines ranging from the Saturday Review of Literature to Broadcasting. Many more stories were written about her and her quest. In June, 1953, Hennock spoke at the opening ceremony of the first educational television station KUHT-TV, in Houston. she later wrote of this event: "They said I would not get a channel, that I would not get an application and that a station would never get on the air. Well, it was a pretty good feeling to be there in Houston and see educational television become a reality."

Hennock dissented from FCC majority decisions in most aspects of broadcast regulation. She advocated FCC preferential treatment for the weaker transmitters of UHF stations, opposed editorializing by broadcasters, and, convinced that television was "just too important a medium," denounced multiple ownership of broadcast facilities. Hennock also argued for stricter controls on children's programming. She told the investigating Senate subcommitte that the continued subjection of children to a television diet of violence, brutality, crime, and horror should be sufficient cause for loss of license. Her persistent efforts and forceful arguments helped to ensure that serious attention was paid to these issues. As a gadfly, Madame Commissioner, as she was frequently called, did not rely on her energy and legal knowledge alone, but used her photogenic appeal, penchant for high fashion and spectacular hats, and even an occasional deluge of tears.

In June 1951, toward the end of her FCC career, Hennock became a focus of controversy when she was nominated by President Truman for a federal judgeship. Probably because she was female, Hennock failed to win the support of the American and New York City bar associations, although several women's bar associations, several women judges, and her FCC colleagues, including Chairman Wayne Coy, backed her. The ultimate reason for her failure to win Senate support was probably her friendship with a married federal judge. Subjected to unusually personal questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hennock denied an improper relationship, called the charge malicious and infounded, and asserted that she had merely helped the man in various political campaigns. In her testimony, she also explained the details of her lawsuit against Silver and admitted to a small private wager that Franklin D. Roosevelt would be elected to a third term, relatively minor improprieties. Nevertheless, she withdrew her name.

After President Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to reappoint her, Hennock left the FCC in 1955 and assumed a less hectic pace. she married William H. Simons, a Washington, D.C. real estate broker, in March 1956, and they lived in the capital. Her husband recalled that she observed the Orthodox Jewish prayer ritual nightly and had strong and affectionate ties to her parents financially until their deaths, and also aided a sister and a niece. After leaving the FCC, she practiced corporate law, first with the firm of Davies, Richberg, Tydings, Beebe and Landa, and then on her own. Hennock remained active in Washington society and politics until her death there in 1960 of a brain tumor. Her memorial is educational television.


Sidebar: This web page author wonders if we would have had shows such as Sesame Street, the Muppets, Electric Company,  Mr. Rogers, The Wonderful World of Disney, or a host of other wonderful shows without this lady.


Article published in "Notable American Women/The Modern Period"
written by Maryann Yodelis Smith and ©1980 by Radcliffe College
Buy the current edition of this book at Amazon or at Barnes & Noble

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