After 600 Years, Swiss City at Last Has a Woman on Night Watch

After 600 Years, Swiss City at Last Has a Woman on Night Watch

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — From the top of Lausanne’s cathedral late at night, Cassandre Berdoz is shouting out, loudly and on the hour, for women’s rights in Switzerland, a country that has been a laggard in gender equality.

Ms. Berdoz, 28, is the first woman ever appointed to the role of night watch in Lausanne, despite the city having had plenty of time to do so: It has preserved this job for over 600 years, even if it no longer fulfills the lifesaving function it had in centuries past, when the night watch helped safeguard residents against fire and other nighttime disasters.

Announcing the time is no longer needed in a country famous for its watches, but Ms. Berdoz still maintains the time-keeping element of her ancient job, too. From the four sides of the bell tower, she cries out each hour, just after the cathedral’s big bell rings.

Cupping her hands around her mouth to help the sound travel further, she leans over the balustrade and sends out her succinct message: “It’s the night watch woman! It just rang 10!”

Joining the night watch was “a childhood dream,” Ms. Berdoz said, but she had to wage a long and strenuous battle to realize it.

When she first inquired about the job a few years ago, she didn’t hear back from city authorities. She wrote to them again, and still got no response. So she started calling city hall every month to ask about a night watch vacancy.

“I think I can safely say that I showed perseverance,” she said.

The breakthrough came in June 2019, when hundreds of thousands of women across Switzerland held a one-day strike to protest against inequality in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

In Lausanne, four women climbed the cathedral’s bell tower to shout the hour, a symbolic act of defiance that was acclaimed by the crowd about 260 feet below. Then last year, when Lausanne’s government had a night watch vacancy, it invited women to apply. Of the 100 or so applications it received, 80 were from women.

After two rounds of interviews — which included demonstrating the power of her voice — Ms. Berdoz, who also sings in an amateur choir, was appointed to the job in August.

“I work in a beautiful old place, I bring something to the city that I love, I keep alive an amazing tradition,” Ms. Berdoz said. “But I also get to shout in the name of women, which is my contribution to feminism.”

Nadia Lamamra, an expert on gender issues and a professor at the Swiss Federal University for Vocational Education and Training, said that the appointment was “a strong symbol, which many feminists welcomed,” but that the city still needed to demonstrate that it was more than a one-off response to the women’s strike.

“Will this symbolic action remain an exception?” Ms. Lamamra asked. “Opening a path doesn’t mean that the way is any easier for those who follow.”

Switzerland — where women only got full rights to vote in 1971 — still has much progress to make, Ms. Lamamra said, when it comes to issues like equal pay for women, a fair balancing of child care and household chores, and bringing more women into labor sectors traditionally reserved for men.

And while Lausanne may at last have a woman on night watch, all of Ms. Berdoz’s colleagues are men. She is part of a team of six assistants to the senior night watch person, a man.

David Payot, a Lausanne municipal councilor responsible for the night watch, said that Switzerland deserved praise for its direct democracy, which lets citizens vote on key policies, but “when you look at women’s economic situation and their role in family life, it still seems very unequal.”

Lausanne, a quaint city of steep, cobblestone streets and home to the International Olympic Committee, has kept a watch at its cathedral since 1405, according to city records. With a bird’s-eye view of the city and the mountains across Lake Geneva, the cathedral’s watchman stood at the pinnacle of a network of vigilant lookouts, including some posted on the towers that dotted Lausanne’s ramparts.

The primary task was to spot smoke or flames before a fire could spread across the city’s wooden buildings; they also enforced a nighttime curfew (a word that comes from the French for cover fire), put in place, in part, to ensure people stayed home and minded their fireplaces.

While several cities in Europe have reinstated their night watch as a tourist attraction, Krakow, Poland, is believed to be the only other city in Europe that has kept the job continuously since the Middle Ages, according to Mr. Payot.

Ms. Berdoz, who has a daytime job as an events manager, typically sits in the bell tower about four nights a month, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., earning the equivalent of $130 for each shift.

While her appointment was broadly applauded, Ms. Berdoz said she hears occasional complaints from people who assert that a woman shouldn’t have the job. She also hears criticism that a nonreligious person like her should not be working in a church.

“I find it a bit sad that some people want to put me on the right path of the faith, since this job was located here not for any religious reason, but because the cathedral offered the highest place to watch over people,” she said.

The night watch starts crying out on the east side of the bell tower, which was traditionally of importance because it faced Jerusalem. But Ms. Berdoz said that she preferred the south side, because of the view onto the lake, while the north side offers “clearly the best echo.”

Like her parents, Ms. Berdoz was born in Lausanne and said that she felt very attached to her home city and its traditions, even more so because of the teachings of her mother, an art historian. Both her parents are also choir singers, so that “singing has always been important in my family,” she said. “We care about our voices.”

If the job’s core mission hasn’t changed much in 61 decades, it has become more comfortable atop a windswept tower in a city with cold winters.

In 1947, Lausanne built a lodge, sustained by two of the bell tower’s original wooden beams, to keep the watchman warm between each round of shouting. The lodge is also used to store the traditional felt hat and candlelit lantern that come with the job, as well as a cheese fondue set. A modern phone has replaced the rotary dial phone that still hangs on the wall.

Bot there’s no elevator to the top of the cathedral, and a watch person must still be able to climb the 153 steps that lead to the bell tower’s lodge.

“Whether you’re a man or a woman,” Ms. Berdoz said, “you need good lungs, a good heart and strong legs for this job.”

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