Dow Corning Corp. and lawyers for tens of thousands of women claiming injury from silicone breast implants agreed Wednesday to a $3.2 billion settlement, a long-awaited step toward ending one of the most heated disputes in American corporate history.

The tentative agreement would end a legal battle of nearly a decade and allow the plaintiffs to receive money as early as next year.It would also enable Dow Corning, a joint venture of Dow Chemical Co. and Corning Inc., to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which the company entered in 1995 for protection from as many 19,000 implant-damage suits.

The agreement leaves unresolved, however, the dispute between the two sides over the extent of harm from silicone implants. While localized complications from leaking implants are well documented, Dow Corning, supported by a growing body of research, has denied throughout the battle that implants cause systemic illness like autoimmune disorders.

One factor apparently pressuring both sides toward agreement, said a participant in the negotiations that led to the settlement, was a report expected later this year by a panel of doctors and other scientists evaluating the scientific evidence. Neither side wanted to wait and risk damage to its case.

And for Dow Corning, resolving its potential liability from implant suits was necessary to win a federal bankruptcy judge's approval of its corporate restructuring.

"While many of the details remain to be worked out over the next two months, this settlement is a breakthrough in an incredibly complex case," said the president of Dow Corning, Gary Anderson. "At a certain time in a controversy, both sides need to agree to disagree and look together to find com-mon ground."

Tommy Jacks, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that if he had needed to go into court "to debate the science of silicone implants, I would still be in there, and these women who had suffered would not have any money."

The agreement, which is part of Dow Corning's restructuring plan, requires approval by a two-thirds vote of the 170,000 women who filed claims against the company, which was once the largest manufacturer of silicone implants, and by Dow Corning's creditors. Lawyers for the women were hopeful Wednesday that they would approve the agreement, enabling some to secure money for injuries sustained two decades ago.