After 600 years, a Swiss town finally has a woman on night watch

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Late at night from the top of Lausanne Cathedral, Cassandre Berdoz cries out, loud and on time, for women’s rights in Switzerland, a country that has lagged behind in gender equality. sexes.

Mrs. Berdoz, 28, is the first woman ever appointed to the position of night watchman in Lausanne, while the city has had plenty of time to do so: she has kept this job for more than 600 years, even if it does not performs more of the life-saving functions it had in centuries past, when night watch helped protect residents from fires and other nocturnal disasters.

Announcing the time is no longer necessary in a country famous for its watches, but Ms. Berdoz also retains the timekeeping element of her old job. From the four sides of the bell tower, she shouts every hour, just after the sound of the big bell of the cathedral.

Putting her hands around her mouth to help the sound travel further, she leans over the railing and sends her succinct message: “It’s the night watchman!” It just rang 10!

Joining the night watch was “a childhood dream”, Ms Berdoz said, but she had to fight a long and arduous battle to achieve it.

When she first inquired about the job a few years ago, she did not hear from city officials. She wrote to them again and still had no response. So she started calling the town hall every month to inquire about a vacant position as a night watchman.

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

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

In Lausanne, four women climbed the bell tower of the cathedral to call out the time, an act of symbolic defiance cheered by the crowd about 80 meters below. Then last year, when the Lausanne government had a vacancy for a night watchman, it invited women to apply. Of the hundred applications 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 role in August.

“I work in a beautiful old place, I bring something to the city that I love, I carry on an incredible tradition,” Ms Berdoz said. “But I can also shout on behalf of women, which is my contribution to feminism.”

Nadia Lamamra, a gender expert and professor at the Swiss Federal University for Vocational Education, said the nomination was “a strong symbol, which many feminists welcomed”, but the city still had 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 does not mean that the path is easier for those who follow.”

Switzerland – where women only gained full suffrage in 1971 – still has a long way to go, Ms. Lamamra said, on issues such as equal pay for women, a fair balance between childcare and household chores, and bringing more women into traditionally male-dominated areas of work.

And if Lausanne may finally have a woman on night duty, all of Ms. Berdoz’s colleagues are men. She is part of a team of six assistants to the senior night watchman, a man.

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

Lausanne, a picturesque city of steep cobbled streets and home of the International Olympic Committee, has watched over its cathedral since 1405, according to city archives. With a bird’s eye view of the city and the mountains across Lake Geneva, the cathedral watchman stood atop a network of watchful lookouts, some of them posted on the towers that dotted Lausanne’s ramparts.

The main task was to spot smoke or flames before a fire spread through the town’s wooden buildings; they also imposed a nighttime curfew (a word that comes from the French for a blanket fire), put in place, in part, to make sure people stay home and watch their fireplaces.

While several cities in Europe have re-established their night watch as a tourist attraction, Krakow, Poland, would be the only other city in Europe to have maintained employment continuously since the Middle Ages, according to Mr. Payot.

Ms. Berdoz, who has a day 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 .

Although her appointment was widely applauded, Ms Berdoz said she occasionally hears complaints from people who say a woman should not take the job. She also hears criticism that a non-religious person like her should not work in a church.

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

The night watch begins to shout from the east side of the bell tower, which was traditionally important because it faced Jerusalem. But Ms Berdoz said she preferred the south side, because of the lake view, while the north side “clearly offers the best echo”.

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

While the post’s primary mission hasn’t changed much in 61 decades, it’s become more comfortable atop a windswept tower in a city with cold winters.

In 1947, Lausanne built a lodge, supported by two of the original wooden beams of the bell tower, to warm the watchman between each burst of shouting. The pavilion is also used to store the traditional felt hat and candlelight lantern that come with the job, as well as a cheese fondue set. A modern telephone has replaced the rotary telephone still hanging on the wall.

Bot there is no elevator to the top of the cathedral, and a guard person still needs to be able to climb the 153 steps that lead to the bell tower lodge.

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