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After 600 years, Swiss city at last has a woman on night watch

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 more than 600 years, even if it no longer fulfils
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 Berdoz still maintains the timekeeping 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
farther, 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,” Berdoz
said, but she had to wage a long and strenuous battle to realise it.

When she first inquired about the job a few years ago, she
did not hear back from city authorities. She wrote to them again, and she 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 220 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.

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After two rounds of interviews — which included
demonstrating the power of her voice — 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,” 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?” 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, Lamamra said, when it comes to issues
such as equal pay for women, a fair balancing of child care and household
chores, and bringing more women into labour sectors traditionally reserved for
men.

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

David Payot, a Lausanne municipal councillor responsible for
the night watch, said 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.”

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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.

Although 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 Payot.

Cassandre Berdoz, the first woman ever appointed to the role of night watch, cries out the time from the bell tower of the cathedral in Lausanne, Switzerland, Dec 23, 2021. Clara Tuma/The New York Times

Cassandre Berdoz, the first woman ever appointed to the role of night watch, cries out the time from the bell tower of the cathedral in Lausanne, Switzerland, Dec 23, 2021. Clara Tuma/The New York Times

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

Although her appointment was broadly applauded, Berdoz said
she hears occasional complaints from people who assert that a woman should not
have the job. She also hears criticism that a nonreligious person such as 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.

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The night watch starts crying out on the east side of the
bell tower, which was traditionally of importance because it faced Jerusalem.
But 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, 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 has not 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.

But there is no elevator to the top of the cathedral, and a
watchperson 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,” Berdoz said, “you need
good lungs, a good heart and strong legs for this job.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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