BY THE 1820s, THE NUMBER of young rural women who had deserted the farm for the factories of New England numbered in the thousands. They weren't the first women in this country, however, to work in industry or manufacturing. A significant number of colonial women worked in "nontraditional" jobs: silversmith, woodworker, coachmaker, lumberjack, mortician, to name a few. "A shorthanded country," writes Philip S. Foner in Women and the American Labor Movement, "could not disdain womanpower."

In the more heavily populated, industrialized America of the 1800s, the picture changed -- although the emerging industries depended on women's labor, saving the men for the fields. The factory women's pitiful wages, killing hours, confinement to low-status jobs with no opportunity for training or advancement and the unhealthy, even dangerous, working conditions are well-known. Less familiar are the truly imaginative insults and abuses visited on these women. When 18,000 waistmakers dramatically walked out of 500 Manhattan shops in 1909, for example, among the conditions they protested was the charging of workers for needles, thread, electric power and the chairs they sat on; not only that, the workers swore the tags they received on completion of a task, used for calculating wages, were intentionally so small that workers would lose them and, thus, their pay.

Women and the American Labor Movement is a chronicle of those conditions and the worker activism that sprang up to battle them. Up until the eve of World War i, the women's labor movement boasted a large cast of characters, one top-heavy with villains -- and with friends like the manufacturing bosses, the women workers hardly needed an enemy such as the U.S. courts. When in 1893 Illinois enacted an eight-hour day, 48-hour week for women, the Supreme Court nullified it for violating "freedom of contract." A magistrate's advice to bloodied female laborers brought before him that "You are on strike against God and nature, whose prime law is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow" inspired George Bernard Shaw to comment: "Delightful. Medieval America is always in the most intimate personal confidence of the Almighty."

Foner contends that the police who filled the courtrooms with arrested and often abused protesting workers in many cases acted as if they were the manufacturers' personal security agents. And commercial newspapers were uncertain forces in women workers' struggles. When New York women tailors formed an association in 1831, the New York Daily Sentinel reported the organizing meeting in a sympathetic tone and went so far as to include a piece captioned "Facts," which pointed up the ridiculousness of the seven cents per shirt paid the women. By contrast, the Chicago Tribune in 1907 dismissed a local industrial exhibit which publicized the women's low wages in factories and shops with the comment that such women had only themselves to blame and that, with a little application, a bright young woman could easily earn more.

Women's labor organizations may have been born because most early trade unions were antagonistic toward women workers whom they perceived as competition for jobs. But the fact is that the women, nevertheless, were usually most successful in their protests when they were supported by the older, more experienced men's groups with technical assistance and simultaneous "sympathy" protests. At the time of the Civil War, when many employers actually preferred women to men because female wages were around 50 percent of the men's, working males realized they'd better throw in their lot with the working women's -- or all wages would be brought down to the women's level by the war's end.

Perhaps the most intriguing thread running through the book is the relationship between the women's labor movement and the suffrage advocates. Feminist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony became actively involved in the cause of the woman worker when, after the Civil War, they split with their abolitionist allies who wanted to postpone women's suffrage until black men had the vote. However, Foner criticizes the suffragists' contribution to the labor movement, stating that "Stanton and Anthony were interested in the labor movement mainly as a force to advance" their own crusade.

Foner's book is thorough, painstaking and concise, but it is too crammed with dates, hourly wage vs. cost-of-living figures, and footnotes to make a "good read." Primarily, it is a lengthy account of one organizing effort and protest after another. The backbone is the author's contention that "many women were militant and aggressive in their attempts to improve their working conditions" and that their attitudes frequently laid the foundation for trade unions; he complains about the "tendency to view women's past as one of undifferentiated subjective and passive victimization, in short, a chronicle of failure."

Wage-Earning Women is, for the most part, that sort of book. Leslie Woodcock Tentler contends that "the vast majority of working-class women were not overtly political in their concerns, and they were not activists." One major result -- and the chief concern of Tentler's book -- is that women's work outside the home, from the earliest years, failed to be the "liberating" force we assume. Instead, she suggests, the experience merely reinforced the appeal of the traditional women's role. The young women who held most of the low-skill, low-pay industrial jobs in the first third of this century did so to occupy themselves between school and marriage. After several years in a grimy manufacturing job or an exhausting retail sales position, escape to the life of a homemaker, who was at least in charge of her own little domain, became even more coveted for its security and social status. o

Tentler's decision to focus on family life is a good one. Not only did women's employment affect relationships with parents or husband and children, but their family situations clearly affected job conditions. Young women living at home, many from immigrant families with traditional values, presumably put their entire paycheck into their mother's hand. Peer groups at work reinforced conservative values which did not foster an inclination to organize.

Tentler has portrayed her Wage-Earning Women as victims of a great male conspiracy to keep them from economic independence and thereby chained to the traditional male-headed family. Yet, she holds women responsible for what she believes was their failure to resist the manipulation. Although her book reads like the thesis-expanded-for-publication that it is, still it comes alive more frequently that Foner's. This is because Tentler has included selected testimony from government investigations of the workplaces of the era, as well as touching and evocative remembrances collected through the ensuing years from the "factory girls" who were there.

When Norton Juster moved to a farm in western Massachusetts 10 years ago, he began to collect the paraphernalia of bygone rural life and he became aware of "a kind of literature much different from what I was used to seeing . . . old farm manuals and journals, home medical advisors . . . domestic-economy tracts, guide books to morals and manners, housekeeping manuals, cookbooks, patent office reports, mechanics' receipt books," and so forth. As he amassed more and more of this material, he found that the 19th-century works for farm women addressed a much wider range of topics than the men's, which were confined almost strictly to business matters. t

It became apparent to Juster that "understanding the rural life meant understanding the women's life." Through numerous selections from the day's popular literature, he illustrates how "The Cult of Domesticity" took root and flourished in the rural environment despite the harshness of the life. The "ladies' magazines" and similar publications, usually edited and published by men, romanticized the role of the farmer's wife, contrasting it favorably with the lot of her urban sister.

But "discontinuity, alienation and despair . . . were certainly dominant facts of women's life," says Juster, who blames the isolation of rural existence for the "disproportionate statistics of insanity and mental aberration" among the era's farm women. His message is sound, but So Sweet to Labor is plagued with problems: too heavy a reliance on material from a single source, The Household, a leading popular magazine of the day; careless editing; the tedious sameness of the material. After the first 100 pages, the excerpts rapidly grow less curious and quaint.