Hennock, Frieda B. (1904–1960)
Hennock, Frieda B. (1904–1960)
American lawyer and first woman to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, who worked to establish educational television in the United States. Name variations: Frieda Barkin Hennock Simons. Born on September 27, 1904, in Kovel, Poland; died on June 20, 1960, at George Washington University Hospital, following surgery for a brain tumor; daughter of Boris Hennock (a businessman in banking and real estate) and Sarah (Barkin) Hennock; attended Morris High School, Bronx, New York, graduated 1921; Brooklyn Law School, LL.B, 1924; extension courses at Columbia University, City College of New York, and the New School of Social Research; married William H. Simons, in March 1956; no children.
Youngest of eight children, emigrated with her family to the U.S. (1910); obtained U.S. citizenship through father's naturalization (1916); worked as law clerk during law school for Thomas & Friedman, for Miller, Boardman & Ruskay, and for John D. Flynn; admitted to state bar in New York, age 22, and entered private practice (1926); joined in law partnership, Silver & Hennock (1927); dissolved firm and resumed private practice (1934); served as assistant counsel to Mortgage Commission of the State of New York (1935–39); was associated with law firm Choate, Mitchell and Ely (1941–48); served as member of the executive committee of the National Health Assembly (1948); served as Federal Communications Commissioner (1948–55); resumed law practice in Washington, D.C. (1955).
"TV 'Conservation'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (December 9,1950); "TV—Problem Child or Teacher's Pet?" in New York State Education (March 1951); "Educational Opportunities in Television," in The Commercial and Financial Chronicle (March 15, 1951); "The Free Air Waves: An Administrative Dilemma," in Women Lawyers Journal (Fall 1950); "My Most Rewarding Experience in TV," in The Journal of the Association for Education by Radio-Television (April 1954); "Television and Teaching," in Educational Outlook (May 1951).
On June 8, 1953, as dignitaries were gathering for the dedication ceremonies at KUHT-TV, the first educational television station in the United States, engineers at the transmitter site were struggling with a glitch in the television signal that was causing a black band across the middle of the screen. Unless they could remove it, the audience's view of the keynote speaker would show only her hairdo at the top of the screen and her chest at the bottom. With only minutes left before the show was to air, the chief engineer gave the transmitter a healthy kick, and to everyone's surprise, the black band disappeared and KUHT-TV began its inaugural broadcast on time. Moments later, Federal Communications Commissioner Frieda B. Hennock was able to tell the viewing audience, "here in Houston begins the practical realization of the tremendous benefits that television holds out to education. With TV, the walls of the classroom disappear; every set within viewing range of the signal is a potential classroom."
Frieda Barkin Hennock, the woman credited with establishing educational television in the United States, was six years old, and the youngest of eight, when her parents, Boris and Sarah Hennock , gathered up their two sons and six daughters to emigrate from Kovel, Poland, to the United States. Boris Hennock found work in New York City's banking and real estate businesses and became a naturalized citizen in 1916, conferring the same citizenship on his minor children, then including Frieda.
As a young girl, Hennock attended New York public schools and showed enough talent playing the piano for her parents to encourage her to consider a career in music. In 1921, after graduation from Morris High School in the Bronx, she received little support for her decision to enter law school, but her parents did not try to stop her; with the drive and determination that would mark her entire life, she enrolled in night
classes at Brooklyn Law School. To support her studies, she found work as a law clerk at several firms, including Thomas & Friedman, as well as Miller, Boardman & Ruskay, and John D. Flynn. In 1924, when she earned her LL.B. degree, she was too young to be admitted to the bar.
In 1926, Hennock was admitted to the New York State Bar at age 22, reportedly the youngest woman lawyer to practice in New York City. To set up her private practice, she provided legal services to a real-estate office in exchange for rental space and demonstrated her expertise in criminal law by successfully defending several clients accused of murder and robbery before deciding to limit her practice to civil law. As she told an interviewer, "I'm glad I was a criminal lawyer when I was very young. Knowing these people gave me an adult sense of values."
In 1927, recognizing that clients might accept her more readily if she had a male colleague, Hennock entered into a law partnership agreement with Julius Silver that lasted seven years. One of Silver's clients was Edwin H. Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, who had given Silver company stock in exchange for legal work. In 1934, when Hennock's partnership with Silver ended, the Polaroid stock was included in the assets listed in the dissolution agreement. When Silver refused to honor Hennock's eligibility to receive a share of the stock, Hennock filed a court claim and won a cash settlement that would have repercussions many years later.
Each woman undertaking a new and challenging public office must feel that she carries the trust of her sex as well as that of the nation.
—Frieda B. Hennock
From 1935 to 1939, Hennock served as assistant counsel to the Mortgage Commission of the State of New York and taught a course at Brooklyn Law School in 1936. In 1941, she joined Choate, Mitchell and Ely, where she was reportedly the first to be employed as a female lawyer, a Jewish lawyer, and a Democrat, in what was then one of the nation's largest and most distinguished law firms. During these years, she continued to live with her parents, contributing to the support of the household as her father's health began to fail. When a sister divorced and returned home, Hennock helped her regain custody of her two daughters. According to friends, she also helped raise the two nieces and financed their college educations.
As an active member of the Democratic Party, Hennock worked on the election campaigns of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mayor William O'Dwyer, and Harry S. Truman. Her skill as a fund raiser for candidates won her recognition and friends within the party, including India Edwards , then associate director of the Democratic National Committee women's division. Edwards was an effective advocate for women's participation in positions of responsibility. As she explained to oral historian Jerry Hess, her strategy was to be ready to recommend a specific candidate when an opening in government occurred. In 1948, when Clifford J. Durr declined to be renamed to another term as Federal Communications commissioner, President Truman was required by law to name a Democrat to fill the position, in order to maintain political balance. Hennock's candidacy had already been suggested for a judgeship in New York, and now Edwards was ready to recommend her to the president for the position at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The recommendation found support among many influential persons and groups, and in May 1948 Truman forwarded Hennock's nomination to the Senate.
During confirmation hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, questions were raised about Hennock's experience in broadcasting and the common carrier services that the FCC was responsible for regulating. When she freely acknowledged that her only experience with radio was in raising considerable money for the Roosevelt campaign, Senator Owen Brewster responded to her candor by observing that perhaps what was needed at the FCC was just such a breath of fresh air. The full Senate was not so ready to act, however, as a number of members were reluctant to approve a nomination made by a president about to run for reelection and, in the opinion of many, not likely to win. Attempts to bring the appointment to a vote failed until the final day before the Senate adjourned for the year. In the last hours of the session, Senator Wherry succeeded in bringing the nomination to a vote, and Hennock was confirmed.
In 1948, the Federal Communications Commission was deeply involved in crucial decision-making regarding the future of radio and TV broadcasting. Radio broadcasting promised to be vastly improved by the fidelity of FM signals, but broadcasters were hesitant to invest in transmitters when there was no guarantee that listeners would buy the radios that could receive the FM signal. In television, 16 stations were on the air, with additional licenses approved, but interference among them was being reported, and it was clear that the number of very-high frequency (VHF) channels available was inadequate to serve the entire country. Ultra-high frequencies (UHF) could be used for additional channels, but technical disadvantages and lack of home sets to receive them made these less desirable, and the FCC faced a potential repeat of the chaotic conditions experienced in the early days of radio broadcasting. When Hennock arrived at the FCC, a freeze on granting television licenses had been in effect since the previous April, 1948. Tests of competing systems for broadcasting color television signals were meanwhile under way, proposals for pay-television services were being submitted, and other critical issues were under consideration. In the short speech she made at her swearing in, Hennock referred to the responsibility facing the commission in developing policies to regulate "the nation's most important public service industries—radio, telephone, telegraph." She acknowledged that "each woman undertaking a new and challenging public office must feel that she carries the trust of her sex as well as that of the nation," and she pledged to dedicate herself "to this trust and endeavor to discharge it in the interest of all the people."
Soon immersed in the technical aspects of the electronic and telephone industries, Hennock wrote to friends about the long hours she spent studying millivolts, microvolts, contours, and tropospheric propagation. But her concerns went far beyond the technical matters. According to Stanley Neustadt who served as her legal assistant, Hennock "was looking for a good cause, one that she could get behind whole-heartedly," and she was keenly aware of the role radio and television played in the lives of individual listeners. Soon she found her cause in the use of television to educate its audiences.
As Hennock's congressional testimony had indicated, her familiarity with non-commercial radio broadcasting had begun with WNYC, working on public-service campaigns to register voters. In 1949, when she attended the Institute for Education by Radio, a meeting of educational broadcasters held at Ohio State University, she met and talked with many people directly involved in educational programming. Most participants were concentrating their efforts on radio and only a few were experimenting with television.
In 1945, in recognition of the differing needs of educators and commercial broadcasters, FCC policy had set aside 20 FM radio channels for educational use. As discussion of television channel allocations began, there was no organized support for comparable set-asides. The technical nature of TV band-width requirements made fewer television channels available, and commercial television broadcasters, foreseeing a profitable future, were eager to apply for licenses for all available channels, while costs made it difficult for educational broadcasters, with limited funds, to compete. Hennock, recognizing the power and influence of the commercial interests, decided to take a stand. When the FCC's proposed table of television assignments included no channel reservations for education, she first wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that part of the UHF band should be reserved for non-commercial use; then she set about an ambitious campaign to rally support from educators and civic organizations.
Hearings on the allocation plan were scheduled for the fall of 1950. Hennock began to alert educators to the need to testify, and some responded by forming an ad hoc committee, the Joint Committee on Educational Television (JCET). The FCC chair became an advisor to the group, referring them to legal counsel and technical experts, while she continued to write, phone, and meet with others who could testify about the importance of television for educating both children and adults. She kept up a heavy schedule of public appearances, debating once with an advertising consultant on the question of "who should be responsible for education on television" on the ABC network's "America's Town Meeting of the Air"; she exchanged views with a former president of the National Association of Broadcasters on "Mrs. Roosevelt Meets the Public"; and she wrote articles for a number of publications, including The Saturday Review of Literature, Women Lawyers Journal, and Educational Outlook.
At the opening of the hearings, representatives of civic groups, public-school systems, colleges, universities, and foundations stood ready to testify. When commercial broadcasters argued that non-commercial stations were unnecessary because they were serving the public's educational needs, educators countered with the results of monitoring studies that revealed little variety in programs and few programs that could be considered anything more than superficially educational. Hennock took an active role, supplying monitoring studies and other evidence to establish a case for channel reservations. In March 1951, when the FCC's notice of rule making was published, proposals for reserving television channels for education were included, but the reservations did not appear to be permanent. In response, Hennock produced a separate new opinion, arguing for the permanence of the reservations.
In June 1951, Truman nominated Frieda B. Hennock to fill an opening as federal judge in New York. According to some, this was the appointment that Hennock had long hoped for, but as the senate hearings proceeded she found herself embroiled in controversy. The appointment was applauded by many groups, including the National Association of Women Lawyers, the Women Lawyer's Association of the State of New York, and the New York Women's Bar Association Her fellow FCC commissioners testified strongly in her support, and many other prominent individuals voiced their approval, before reservations began to arise about the appointment of any woman to the federal bench. The American Bar Association and the New York City Bar Association, both of which had only just begun to admit women, flatly opposed the nomination.
In confirmation hearings before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, questions then arose about Hennock's lawsuit against Silver, her former law partner, as well as allegations that she had used her personal friendship with a judge to secure business for a law firm she had been associated with, and rumors regarding her moral character. Transcripts of those hearings are incomplete, but those that remain suggest that the charges of ethical or moral impropriety were based on anonymous comments in a letter sent to the committee. Notes that Hennock wrote in preparation for the hearings are in her papers at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe. In them, Hennock referred to the charges as "hearsay of a nature which women are defenseless to combat." Witness after witness spoke highly of her qualifications and good character. None could recall any incident damaging to her integrity or reputation, and, in public, Truman continued to support her. But as the hearings dragged on and confirmation grew more doubtful, Hennock finally asked that her name be withdrawn.
Returning to her work at the FCC, Hennock renewed her efforts on behalf of educational television. When the FCC's Sixth Report and Order was issued on April 11, 1952, it included 242 specific channel reservations for non-commercial television. Even though channels had been reserved for non-commercial use, Hennock realized that getting educational stations on the air was crucial in preserving those reservations. Taking her usual hands-on approach, she worked closely with communities, encouraging cooperation between competing interests and providing advice on fund raising and procedural matters. She also encouraged corporations to provide grants to help finance purchases of equipment for the new stations.
When the first educational television station, KUHT-TV in Houston, began broadcasting in June 1953, Hennock's vision had become a reality. By the following July, six more such stations were on the air. Two years later, when her term expired in mid-1955, over 50 non-commercial license applications had been filed and 12 stations were on the air.
That year, when her term at the FCC expired, President Dwight D. Eisenhower chose not to reappoint Hennock. As she later told a subcommittee investigating questions of ethical misconduct in regulatory agencies, she was not surprised. Her outspoken opposition to practices of the commercial networks, her criticism of violence in television programming, her recommendation that broadcasters give free air time to candidates in presidential elections, and her warnings about what she saw as growing monopolies in the industry had made her unpopular with many broadcasters.
Hennock resumed private law practice, joining the firm of Davies, Richberg, Tydings, Beebe & Landa in Washington, D.C. In March 1956, she married William H. Simons, a real-es-tate broker, and set up a private legal practice. In June 1960, she underwent surgery for a brain tumor; she died on June 20.
In oral history interviews, Stanley Neustadt recalled his former boss as a superb negotiator; she was vivacious, charming, but highly emotional. When Hennock disagreed with her fellow commissioners, she did not hesitate to express her views and add her dissenting opinions to the public record. But as Neustadt has pointed out "on almost every issue on which she took any noticeable position, she was ultimately—sometimes long after she left the Commission—ultimately shown to be right." What is clear about the portrait that emerges from such recollections is that public television in the United States owes its existence in large part to Frieda B. Hennock's energy and commitment to pursue a course she believed would benefit generations to come.
Congressional Record. June 19, 1948, p. 9169.
"First Woman Member of FCC Makes Impression on Senators with Frankness," in The Washington Post. July 6, 1948, p. 2.
"Frieda Hennock," in Current Biography: Who's News and Why 1948. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1949.
"Frieda Hennock Simons Dead," in The New York Times. June 21, 1960, p. 33.
"Glamour at the Inquiry," in The New York Times. April 4, 1958, p. 12.
"Miss Commissioner Hennock," in The Baltimore Sun. August 8, 1948, p. A-5.
"Miss Hennock Says Networks Hinder TV," in The New York Times. April 4, 1958, p. 1.
Public Television's Roots Oral History Project. The Mass Communications History Center, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1982.
U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearings on confirmation of the nomination of Frieda B. Hennock. Unpublished U.S. government documents (82) SJT.10, T.11, T.12, T.13.
"Woman Nominated as Member of FCC," in The New York Times. May 25, 1948.
Morgenthau, Henry. "Dona Quixote: The Adventures of Frieda Hennock," in Television Quarterly. Vol. XXVI, no. 2, 1992, pp. 61–73.
Powell, John Walker. Channels of Learning: The Story of Educational Television. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1962.
Robertson, Jim. Tele Visionaries. Charlotte Harbor, FL: Tabby House Books, 1993.
Personal papers including correspondence, speeches, published articles, and documents related to her work at the Federal Communications Commission, at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Official papers related to her tenure at the Federal Communications Commission at the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.
Lucy A. Liggett , professor of telecommunications and film, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan