Sisterhood Blog

Frieda Barkin Hennock, Federal Communications Commissioner

By Chana Pollack

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Forward Association

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

In June 1951, Frieda Barkin Hennock was nominated for to a federal judge position in the Southern District of New York. Her nomination warranted coverage in the Yiddish Forverts. The headlines themselves seem to shep nakhes (take pride) noting the fact that “Miss Hennock” was Polish born, a not entirely subtle way to tell readers that she was undzers, she’s one of us — a Yiddish speaking immigrant from the old country.

Hailing from the shtetl of Kowel, in a territory that was formerly Poland and is now Ukraine, Hennock arrived in the United States as a six-year-old in 1910. She came with her seven older siblings and her parents, Boris and Sarah. According to the Forverts, the young Frieda showed talent already as a child when she studied piano. She was such a good musician that after graduating Morris High School in the Bronx, it seemed music would be her career, or so her father thought.

Frieda, however, had another idea. She wanted to be a lawyer. The precocious Frieda entered Brooklyn Law School immediately upon graduating high school, overcoming parental resistance and working as a law clerk in order to pay for her schooling. When she graduated in 1924, she was 19 and too young to be admitted to the bar. At 21, she became the youngest lawyer in New York at the time. The Forverts struck an excited tone when reporting on the lawyer-ke (woman lawyer) with the interesting career, noting that the 48-year-old “Miss Hennock” was only the third woman nominated as a federal judge. She had been the first woman and Democrat, the Forverts noted, accepted to the “Republican law firm” of Choate, Mitchell and Ely. The paper cited her record as a champion of women’s rights and the “plights of the masses.”

In 1948, Hennock was appointed by President Harry Truman to the Federal Communications Commission, becoming the first woman to hold that position, which, the paper noted, she worked with all her strength to ensure that radio and television viewers are not “sold out to business interests.” To that end, she led the struggle to ensure that a portion of television channels were made available for cultural and educational purposes. It was during Hennock’s tenure at the FCC, that educational television, now public television, was developed. Hennock even appeared on NBC’s “Mrs. Roosevelt Meets The Public’” to discuss the topic, and finally succeeding with the opening of a first such channel, KUHT-TV in Houston, Texas.

Nominated to be a judge for the Southern District of New York by President Truman, Hennock received support from the Women Lawyer’s Association of the State of New York, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs as well as the Federal Communications Bar Association but not that of the American Bar Association. Many colleagues on the FCC such as Wayne Coy, the Chairman, testified on her behalf before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on her nomination.

As the hearing proceeded, questions were soon raised about her character as well as abilities. She subsequently faced the committee’s unrelenting inquiry mostly related to her advocacy for the underprivileged. When FCC colleague Robert F. Jones, a former Republican member of the House of Representatives completed his testimony in favor of Hennock’s aptitude as policy maker and lawyer, he was questioned about her supposed temper. Senator Alexander Wiley, a Republican member of the committee, presented anecdotal information wherein Hennock, speaking in private about personal matters with an unspecified Judge in DC was said to have become quickly enraged: “She flew off the handle” he said, according to the record for the Judicial Committee. He noted that was not an attribute compatible with being a magistrate. Wiley further asserted this indicated that Hennock was too much of an advocate and policy maker, and not likely to be able to put that aside on the Bench.

Another member of the committee, Senator Magnuson, a Democrat, seemed to represent broadcasters angered at Hennock’s strong advocacy for non-commercial educational channels when he suggested that frequently discussions had taken place at the FCC about removing her from the commission.

Despite a variety of witnesses speaking in support of her nomination, about her integrity and “zeal for the public interest,” her courage in decision making, thoroughness, skill and more, Hennock herself eventually withdrew her nomination.

“Miss Hennock’” the Forverts, in its initial glee about her nomination, informed readers, was 5 foot 3, blonde with brown eyes and had womanly charm. She was known as a generous family member, financially supporting relatives throughout their lifetime and someone whose Jewish ritual practice included reciting the shma prayer upon going to sleep.


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